‘Gender neutrality must be a performance metric for the senior leadership'

Kavita Lakhani, Director – Operations, Weber Shandwick and Co-Chair, IPG Women’s Leadership Network, opens up about her professional journey, diversity at workplace, the pandemic and more

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Updated: Apr 23, 2021 2:37 PM
kavita lakhani

An advocate of equality and diversity, Kavita Lakhani, Director – Operations, Weber Shandwick and Co-Chair, IPG Women’s Leadership Network, has been working relentlessly towards promoting inclusion in the comms industry over the years. Her expertise in brand building, message development, public education, crisis management using social/traditional media, make her a sought-after senior counselor. In a professional career spanning nearly three decades, Kavita has worked at Ogilvy PR and Weber Shandwick, prior to Lintas. She has moved on from Lintas Live after a long stint of 18 years and has re-joined the Weber Shandwick team this month as the Director-Operations.

She works with clients, to provide innovative solutions and risk management techniques. In this feature, Kavita opens up about her professional journey, diversity at workplace, talent pool management, inclusion in the PR industry, the pandemic and more in the latest chapter of ‘Women Achievers Series’.

Edited Excerpts:-

Tell us about your journey in the communications industry.

I started my career in communications over two and half decades back when the Indian PR industry was in its infancy. It was the era of landline phones, fax machines and typewritten hand-delivered press releases and largely editorial media. MS Word, internet and Digital Marketing didn’t even exist back then. The industry has grown dynamically ever since, hugely impacting the services offerings and skill sets required to thrive in this sector. Covid has ensured that this is also the fastest-changing communications and technology landscape we've ever been in. As brands pivot to the kind of "immediate creativity" that requires real time cultural insight into multiple stakeholder groups, PR is finally play the leading role that it craves. PR has moved from an editorial-first to a digital-first approach. This shift has given way to an era where facts are more fluid and peer-to-peer influence has supplanted talk from the top.

My key learning has been: Change is inevitable. It is important to embrace technology and adapt. It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change. Secondly, some people dream of success whereas others wake up and make them happen. The only way to turn your dreams into reality is to work hard for them. You can’t sit and expect great things to happen for you. Get your hands dirty, sweat for the sweet victory.

How is the PR industry unique with its largely female workforce?

It was female dominated, maybe 10 years back. Not so any longer. Women are natural story tellers, collaborative and social. They also excel in soft skills and language skills, which explains why they gravitate towards PR. Also, the profession was not very lucrative, hence it did not attract male talent. 

This is an industry that is changing constantly and unpredictably. Covid has pushed our clients and the PR industry over the technology tipping point. Employees (male and female) need to know about things like new digital skills, platforms and channels that didn’t exist just a short time ago.

Digital, video content and data analytics are now core to PR. This shift has changed the talent that the industry attracts. Analytics specialists, integrated brand strategists, strong creative & content creators and specialized digital communicators form part of the mix. People are just – if not more – likely to get their information from bloggers, YouTubers and brands themselves than they do from traditional media.

To get the results our clients expect, our talent must have a deep knowledge of how to reach stakeholders across a landscape that’s changing every day.

How has Covid changed the perspective for women leaders across industries? What changes did occur in the PR industry?

I am keenly aware of the impact Covid continues to have on everyone – but particularly on women. Too many have lost jobs or stalled careers due to mind-boggling responsibilities at home. Others are simply stressed and stretched, sometimes without sufficient support.

The realities of Covid have had a disproportionate impact on women – one that impacts their present lives and their future. Thankfully the PR industry didn’t brush the unfortunate Covid reality under the carpet as though it didn’t exist. Leaders and teams across agencies accepted it as a challenge and rallied tirelessly and generously to support clients and each other as we persevere through and past the pandemic. Women leaders, in particular, no longer view emotions as a weakness, but use it to strike the right cord with co-workers. 

A few traits that I observed across male and female leaders that really rose to the task were:

 1) Trust and Empathy, especially with remote working challenges

2) Humility- willing to admit they did not know all the answers

3) Forward looking mindset that inspired people to believe that they would overcome the crisis which gave people hope.

What does an agency have to do to build its culture and work ethos to promote gender neutrality? 

The best outcomes are when change comes from within – and in the case of gender balance, it needs to start at the top. Gender neutrality must be a performance metric for the CEO and senior leadership, rather than be relegated to HR. The common misconception is that gender neutrality is a concept for celebration on IWD when in actuality, this needs to be normalized and become a central, foundational part of company culture.

Leadership need to not just celebrate gender neutrality, but become champions for it. HR could play an important supportive role by grooming leaders from different genders, diverse cultures and backgrounds, creating equal opportunities, and safe workspaces with sensitive employees. I also can’t emphasise enough on the importance of making sure that everyone’s voice is heard, and constantly making sure that everything is on the right track. 

How crucial is the role of men in an organization to promote gender equality? 

Warren Buffett famously said that one of the reasons for his great success was that he was only competing with half the population. Today fortunately that couldn’t be farther from the case – and we are all better for it. The competitive landscape is filled with bright women and men ready to tackle our future challenges. But if we are to maximize this potential, we must reframe the gender gap – not as a women’s issue – but as a moral and economic imperative that must be solved together. Men have a critical role to play in advancing diversity and inclusion efforts, particularly in the realm of gender equality and bias.

Yet too often, men stay firmly affixed to the sidelines – not necessarily because they don’t care, but because they don’t see it as their place or responsibility. There is today a greater understanding 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. Where men are key decision makers and holders of economic and organizational power and public resources, they have a particular responsibility to systematically identify and address gender inequalities and discrimination. 

Why is the ratio of men and women not proportionate as we move to senior leadership level? 

Many of the challenges that women face in their careers are the same as those for men - include work/life balance, parenting, juggling many responsibilities and multi-tasking. However, more women lose their drive and drop off their careers. They either take a break to start a family or to look after aged parents. Also, lack of learning and growth opportunities at the work place, few role models at senior levels, lack of networks may contribute in making women leave their career mid-way. But often, it is their own inhibitions that come in the way of them seeking their rightful place at the top of the ladder.

Another reason which isn’t directly related to PR, but I feel strongly about is the lack of safety of women. I see things changing though. The huge difference is that there is greater acceptance of women who are now seen as individuals rather than just wives, sisters and mothers. While responsibilities at home haven’t really changed, women today have the freedom to try out new ideas and are independent enough to balance their life and work better. The larger environment, including husbands, families and work places, are also far more supportive. 

A lot has been talked about the pay gap but is there something called value gap to be talked about? 

I believe there is pay parity for both genders in the PR industry, at least across the large firms. However, not so much in other industries. There is definitely much more scrutiny that women leaders face and a pay gap, especially in male-dominated industries. The positive thing is that there are a whole lot of conversations happening around it. 

As far as the value gap is concerned, it is not about gender – it is about displaying qualities and skills that are unique to you as a person. Also, most importantly as a leader or a team player how are you using these effectively at the workplace. 


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