Sometimes in life, we’re not always sure it’s okay to ask. Which is why it's so important that the culture around us empowers us to be able to do so.
It’s not a question of the right to information—rather, it’s about deserving to be heard, whoever you are. In some cultures, some organisations and for some minority groups, the right to ask, without fear of approbation, is not a certainty. Time and again, people often choose to remain silent for fear of being disregarded or worse, reprimanded.
This needs to change. Empowerment in the workplace, in communities, and in society should not be a privilege but a given.
What we accept just evolves
It is not unusual, especially in India, for people to follow the path set out for them at birth. From their childhood days, through their education into their workplaces, relationships and family lives, people often suppress their aspirations because they feel they do not have the right to ask for something different, more fulfilling and or purposeful as individuals.
The upshot for women is particularly harsh. It can be seen in leadership forums all over the world. Look at the representation of women in the top echelons of the corporate world and they tend to be conspicuous in their absence—and not just by the numbers in which they assume the highest leadership roles. Whilst the population of men and women is present in equal numbers in the country, the representation of women in the overall workforce—not just at a senior level—is lower than 50%.
In accordance to the World Bank, India’s female labour force peaked at 31% in 2000, then fell to 24% in 2022—up from 18% in 2018. Afghanistan, Somalia and Saudi Arabia all had higher numbers.
So, is it culture that has put them there? Reports say yes. The particularly conservative culture, coupled with a lack of job creation are certainly factors to explain.
India may have outranked China as the world’s most populous country, but women cannot reach their potential in this huge busy country because of the dearth of female representation in its workforce and prevailing patriarchal ideas, resulting in insufficient opportunities for women. Yet women here are highly employable. This is the case both in rural and urban communities.
What we're seeing is what happens when women feel they don't have the right to ask.
Why mentoring is key
The pandemic signalled a set back women in the workforce all over the world—the ‘Shecession’ as it was termed. Since then, bringing back women to improve nations’ productivity numbers has not been easy.
That is why mentoring is key. WPP launched its ‘Stella’ programme to support women in 2015 and it was brought to India in 2020 during the pandemic. The timing was perfect, because the feedback leaders were receiving from women was that they were carrying a disproportionate burden of caring and domestic duties on top of their careers. It was a case of extreme juggling, often leading to burnout.
Stella helped us find a way to help women stay at work, but it also helped us to understand what we can do as leaders to help them, mentor them through knowledge transfer and be supportive. And it’s not just about women helping women; men are important allies for women too.
When that support absent, you see the ramifications of that in business performance numbers, attrition numbers, mental health, workforce despondency and a dearth of creativity. We're only just starting to understand the direct correlations between supporting women in the work environment and business outcomes. But they are there.
The same is true of other groups
Under-represented groups generally struggle with the right to ask. That is why, if we are to mentor them, we need to identify them. Be it LGBTQIA+ groups, people living with a disabilities or those from underrepresented ethnicities—they all need support to enable them to feel comfortable in speaking up.
There is listening and learning to be done but, ultimately, the right to ask needs to be embedded across all groups, especially if they are minorities. Conversations about entitlement must become normalised so that everyone starts putting up their hand and asking for what they want.
It all comes back to the right to ask, embedding that right in culture—including business culture—and making sure under-represented groups are supported through allyship. Only then will the number of women in the workplace in India shift upwards once more, and only then can the workforce be balanced.
Apoorva Bapna is the chief culture officer for WPP, India.