Campaign Staff
May 13, 2024

Safety first: Psychological safety for women is imperative for workplace success

We speak to Bayer India’s Ritu Mittal and EssenceMediacom India’s Averill Sequeira on creating psychological safety in the workplace in India, to address the unique challenges facing women in the marketing communications space.

(L-R) Bayer India’s Ritu Mittal and EssenceMediacom India’s Averill Sequeira
(L-R) Bayer India’s Ritu Mittal and EssenceMediacom India’s Averill Sequeira
This article is part of a content series on diversity, equity, and inclusion for Campaign Asia-Pacific and Greater China’s Women to Watch, created in partnership with EssenceMediacom.
Defined as a shared belief that people can take risks, express ideas and concerns, ask questions, and admit mistakes without fear of negative consequences, psychological safety is essential to positive, inclusive workplaces. Beyond being good for morale (and plain good), creating a psychologically safe working environment is better for creativity, collaboration, and ultimately, business.
According to a 2023 report by Indeed, 47% of Indian employers believe that psychological safety is crucial. Companies that neglect it risk employee dissatisfaction and are denying themselves the chance to create better work. A recent report by Kantar, the Advertising Standards Council of India, and the UN Stereotype Alliance showed that Indian advertisers who make stereotypical ads are missing out on a huge, untapped audience base.
But fostering psychological safety is a constant effort. It requires the dismantling of unequal structures and overcoming biases. In India, that means reckoning with patriarchal cultural norms and actively effecting change. To learn more, we spoke to Ritu Mittal, head of marketing and digital at Bayer Consumer Health India, and Averill Sequeira, head of creative futures, India, at EssenceMediacom.
When did psychological safety start coming to the fore within Indian marketing and advertising?
Ritu Mittal (RM): Campaigns used to rely on static, one-way communication, limiting audience engagement. However, digital technologies introduced dynamic ways of communicating and engaging.
Concurrently, there has been a cultural shift towards open communication, collaboration, and risk-taking. Comprising nearly 30% of the workforce, Gen Z has brought a fresh perspective, characterised by a willingness to embrace failure as a pathway to innovation.
Today, organisations prioritise inclusivity and continuous learning, to adapt to the evolving marketing landscape and remain competitive in engaging consumers.
Averill Sequeira (AS): As a society, Indians have generally been risk-averse. Advertising was always for mavericks: the unconventional, English-speaking, and liberal-minded elite in metros who were great storytellers. While this resulted in memorable campaigns, it was still driven top-down by larger-than-life creative heads and male-dominated boardrooms.
With the advent of the internet in the mid to late-2000s, younger, more digitally native talent began working in agencies. Technology democratised access to ideas and global brands, and suddenly, the old rules no longer held true. Today, we have 20-year-olds starting digital agencies, launching e-commerce brands, and attracting venture capital funding. Failure is no longer feared but considered a sign of ambition.
Given the patriarchal underpinnings of Indian society, what are the specific challenges faced by women around psychological safety?
RM: Societal expectations and cultural norms often serve as barriers for women to freely voice their opinions or own their successes. Moreover, balancing professional and family responsibilities can evoke feelings of guilt or inadequacy.
Despite possessing the necessary skills, many women grapple with low confidence, especially during pivotal moments like performance reviews, salary negotiations, or discussions about role expansion, leading to missed opportunities. Lack of female representation in leadership roles and ingrained unconscious biases further exacerbate these challenges.
AS: Patriarchal dynamics often reflect in professional settings. While young women today are far more independent and assertive, deference to especially male authority carries into meetings and performance reviews. Post-Covid, some companies have seen an increase in attrition among women when asked to return to office. Within the Indian context, this means commutes, long working hours, domestic arrangements, and childcare responsibilities that make working women less confident about new challenges.
What are some of the topmost priorities when it comes to creating a psychologically safe workspace?
RM: It entails decisive action: actively confronting unconscious biases, fostering inclusivity, and cultivating supportive environments. Merely acknowledging issues is not enough; tangible programmes like mentorship initiatives are crucial.
AS: Creating safe spaces must be part of the mainstream conversation. We have made giant strides in overcoming biases by launching 365-day programmes that involve training facilitators, regular workshops, reinforcement in public town halls, and equipping every person on the floor to recognise and empathetically call out bias.
Traditionally, corporate culture in marcomms has valorised direct communication to the point of bluntness, verging on rudeness. What are some of the ways in which previously acceptable behaviours are being dismantled?
RM: Promoting emotional intelligence, inclusive language, and constructive feedback are key. Companies must hold employees accountable through clear policies, with leadership modelling respectful behaviour. Implement regular feedback systems where employees can openly share their thoughts and concerns. Take prompt and corrective action in the event of disrespectful behaviour.
How can organisations ensure that psychological safety measures are in place when they are most needed — during downturns and periods of uncertainty?
AS: Periods of uncertainty tend to have a more adverse impact on the already-marginalised. This could be young working mothers, fresh recruits, older managers, or those in the LGBTQ+ community, all of whom may feel vulnerable. Ensure there are one-to-one follow-ups after general town halls or top management meetings, where personalised conversations are held to check on employee wellbeing and concerns. Being transparent about the support that is available is important, and so is external support via employee assistance programmes. Clamp down on anxiety-inducing rumours and toxic corridor conversations by being available to those who need to talk.
What are some of the upsides and advantages you have seen when workplaces are psychologically safe for women?
RM: Creativity and innovative ideas flourish, leading to diverse thought processes and novel solutions. Collaboration and teamwork thrive from trust and open communication, and decision-making is enhanced by incorporating a range of viewpoints.
Women in such teams feel confident and equipped to contribute to the growth of the business and themselves. This improves employee engagement and satisfaction levels, talent retention, and organisational culture.
AS: Having led teams with majority young women, it has been a pleasure to see them thrive and express themselves fully. We are all the richer with otherwise under-represented points of view, bold new territories, and human insights. 
In psychologically safe spaces, women are more likely to be unapologetic about the time and resources they need. They are more vocal about needing leave during their menstrual cycle or for a mental health recharge. They are excellent at collaborating and often figure out solutions or alternatives before approaching a senior colleague for a resolution.
How would you rate the progress of your organisation on psychological safety for women? 
RM: In our biannual ‘Employee Voice’ survey, India received a score of 4.1 (out of 5) for inclusion. To deepen employee awareness of DEI, Bayer hosts several sensitisation workshops to educate everyone on topics such as unconscious bias, microaggressions, and remedial actions. Our DEI progress is also an area of focus during town halls, conferences, and other large employee gatherings.
Bayer also develops its people’s capability through ‘InfinitUS I&D Community,’ a voluntary, employee-driven, and company-sponsored community promoting cultural diversity and education. One such group is ‘Growing Representation and Opportunities for Women’ (GROW), which hosts panel discussions, conversations with leaders, and coaching programmes to empower female employees across the world. 
Now in its fifth year, the GROW ‘Global Leadership Link’ coaching programme for female and non-binary employees draws on the wealth of expertise from leaders worldwide, offering tailored sessions on topics pertinent to women’s advancement. 
I have witnessed its impact first-hand and am confident that it will go from strength to strength.
AS: We have taken our responsibility as an industry leader beyond business to make a positive impact on work ethics and women’s safety. 
Within recruitment, every role is equal opportunity; we take pride in high diversity ratios on teams. We have a wellbeing ally programme, a female mentorship programme, and train-the-trainer facilitations to create champions of ethics and etiquette across offices.
In the next five years, we need a further democratisation of talent to include those from non-metros and non-English-speaking backgrounds. We need to proudly embrace the growing LGBTQ+ community and make our organisation safe for them. 
Our commitment to women taking sabbaticals and coming back to work needs to be better than government-mandated periods. The use of technology to facilitate remote working needs to be improved. And lastly, softer aspects of leadership and mentoring need to be brought into the mainstream and celebrated, creating better role models for the future.


Campaign Asia

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