Kavita Lakhani, Weber Shandwick

An award-winning communications leader, Kavita Lakhani started her career in the Indian public relations industry when it was in its infancy. This was back in 1994 when digital marketing didn’t even exist as a communications discipline. Based in Mumbai, she is currently the Director of Operations at Weber Shandwick, a leading global PR firm owned by the Interpublic Group and also serves on the advisory board of Finlabs India, a new-age fintech company focused on developing technology-enabled financial services and analytics products.

She has seen the industry landscape change with all the social and technological transformations that came with the turn of the millennium. Communications turning from analog to digital and brands pivoting to the kind of “immediate creativity” in the age of digital marketing. Here she talks to the Women Icons Network on how women are taking the front seat in the communications industry and how so much still needs to be done across the entire corporate sector.

A huge advocate of workplace equality and diversity, Kavita has been working towards promoting inclusion in the communications industry.  She has been the Co-Chair India, Women’s Leadership Network for the Interpublic Group since 2015. Last year, she was also appointed the National President-PR & Digital Marketing Council at the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (WICCI).

Challenges for Women

Every professional faces certain challenges like work-life balance, parenting, juggling many responsibilities and multi-tasking. However, there are certain unique challenges that often lead to women losing their drive and opting out of their careers, says Kavita. “They either take a break to start a family or to look after aged parents. Also, lack of learning and growth opportunities at the workplace, unequal pay and opportunities, fewer role models at senior levels, lack of networks contribute to women leaving their career mid-way,” she explains. Often, their own inhibitions also come in the way of them seeking their rightful place at the top of the ladder, she adds.

In the Indian context, she feels that a general lack of safety for women in certain geographies and smaller towns are also factors that impede women joining the workforce. The good thing is this situation is changing. “The big change now is that there is greater acceptance of women as individuals, rather than just wives, sisters, and mothers. While responsibilities at home haven’t really changed, women are much more driven today to work and realise their aspirations,” believes Kavita.

Workplace Gender Equality

She feels that professionals are now prioritising workplaces that are demonstrably invested in the wellbeing of their staff, including a commitment to inclusive and supportive cultures regarding diversity markers like gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, faith, and neurodiversity.

“Inclusion and diversity have a direct impact on the ability of a company to grow and succeed.  Gender diversity must hence be a key performance metric for the CEO and senior leadership team, rather than be relegated to the HR team as is done in most organisations,” Kavita exhorts.

Commitments to and investments in DE&I are most respected when they come from the inside-out, are understood and supported at all levels of the organization and are upheld by leadership, she adds. Instead, most companies think that gender diversity is a concept for celebration on International Women’s Day or International Pride Month. She believes that senior management need to not just celebrate gender neutrality but become champions for it.

She also shares that though the communications industry has a very large female workforce, the challenge before this industry is the high dropout rate. While 34% of the entire communications industry workforce consists of women, the ratio drops to just 11% at senior management positions, and a mere 3% in boardrooms, she adds. Through her work with Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s PR and Digital Marketing Council, Kavita is trying to plug this leak.

The Weber Shandwick Approach

“At Weber Shandwick, we believe that building a diverse workforce that leverages all our best thinking and effort is critical to sustaining our competitive advantage, today and in the future,” informs Kavita.

It is this belief in becoming an equal opportunities workplace among senior leadership including the CEO that the company’s India office has a 1:1 female to male gender ratio across levels. Several simple, yet effective initiatives have been rolled out in the past five years to inspire female talent within the company. One of them is regular sharing of stories to celebrate successful female staff across all levels in the organization so that other women can easily find role models within the company.  Weber Shandwick has also instituted a strong mentoring program that enables women to seek inspiration and guidance, to navigate their careers effectively. Flexible work options, transparent performance management and internal mobility framework has allowed women to explore different opportunities to build long-term careers within the organisation.

Role of Male Allies

American businessman Warren Buffett famously said that one of the reasons for his great success was that he was only competing with half the population, referring to the limited career opportunities available for women when he started off. “Fortunately, today that couldn’t be farther from the case – and we are all better for it,” says Kavita.

However, in order to maximize the potential of working women, there is a need to reframe the gender gap: not as a women’s issue, but as a moral and economic imperative that must be solved together, she feels. She asserts that men have a critical role to play in advancing diversity and inclusion efforts, particularly in the realm of gender equality and bias. Too often, men stay firmly affixed to the side lines, she points out aunt, not necessarily because they don’t care, but because they don’t see it as their place or responsibility.

“There is a greater understanding today that it is important to look beyond the attitudes and behaviours of individual men to the structural processes that perpetuate the existing inequalities between women and men,” feels Kavita. Being the key decision makers, holders of economic and organizational power and public resources, they have a particular responsibility to systematically identify and address gender inequalities and discrimination, she thinks.

Dealing with Problem Behaviour

As a senior leader within the industry, Kavita has come across several instances where people have used inappropriate language or indulged in inappropriate behaviour at work. She says while some of them were intentional, at most times they are unintentional.

One instance that she recalls is when a senior male colleague advised his overweight female reportee to join a gym during a team lunch. The comment was perceived as highly offensive by the young reportee, and misinterpreted as body shaming. The reportee stated she felt harassed and uncomfortable at the workplace.

The company worked towards sensitising the senior on the situation, even as they facilitated a safe forum for the reportee and senior to share their perspectives in the presence of an HR person and a member of the Sexual Harassment Committee. The senior clarified that the remark was not meant to hurt or offend, however apologised for his insensitivity. The reportee eventually went on to become a champion of DE&I initiatives for the organisation.

What Companies Can Do

Kavita feels that before deciding how a company should go about challenging inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, we first need to consider what they can do to reduce the likelihood of such behaviours. “Promoting a gender sensitive workplace, besides a safe and secure work environment is critical for enabling a diverse workforce. Companies should take a clear stance and communicate on what kind of behaviour is and is not acceptable within the workplace,” she suggests.

“Putting together a list of inappropriate behaviours in your workplace should form part of your risk assessment to make it as specific as possible for your business. Companies should also commit vocally and in writing to protecting their staff, not just from colleagues but from customers and clients too,” Kavita advises. Some ways to ensure compliance once the rules are set, according to her include calling out information on an employee helpline, formal redressal systems like a Sexual Harassment Committee and telling new employees during induction, that the organisation is dedicated to prioritising and practising appropriate workplace behaviour from day one.

Pandemic Impact

“The realities of the covid pandemic have had a disproportionate impact on women – one that impacts their present lives and their future,” she shares. Unpaid care work continues to be a women’s responsibility, with women spending on average five hours per day on domestic work, vs. 30 minutes for men according to the independent think tank Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), she adds.

“Fortunately, the Communications industry did not brush the unfortunate covid reality under the carpet as though it didn’t exist. Leaders and teams across agencies no longer view emotions as a weakness but have used them to strike the right chord with co-workers,” informs Kavita.