The Power of Persuasion: Boosting Assertive Communication Skills Increases Women’s Employment in Rural India

June 26, 2024
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Guest post by Namrata Kala, PhD and Madeline McKelway, PhD

In many households in India, particularly in rural areas, married women often have limited influence over crucial decisions about their lives, like whether to work outside the home. Often, their husbands or other family members make the final call. Employment is a common topic of disagreement among spouses, with women generally showing more interest in working outside the home than their husbands. This pattern is not unique to India: globally, women often support greater freedom for their working outside the home than their husbands do.

Changing this reality for women requires not only efforts at the societal level, such as changing expectations of husbands, families, and communities, but also intensive and empowering elevation of women’s voices and needs. One of the ways that women can raise their voices – and already do so in many micro-interactions each day – is in their homes, within their own marriages. It’s possible that we could support them to be more effective in each of these micro-interactions. Think about it: if all women had the support to advocate for their rights, wants, and needs in their marriages and relationships, this would be a critical step towards making sure they have the power to forge their own life trajectories.

One idea is that building women’s skills to communicate assertively – which means communicating their needs and boundaries in a firm but non-aggressive way – could help. But very little research has been done in low and middle-income countries that shows whether and how this idea could work in reality.

We set out to test whether improving women’s assertive communication skills could improve their abilities to take on jobs in rural Uttar Pradesh, India—a region with one of the lowest female labor force participation rates globally. We conducted a randomized controlled trial to explore whether women trained via a six-session assertive communication program could take on jobs at a higher rate than those who hadn’t been trained. The communication program was developed by WorldBeing, an NGO that supports wellbeing for marginalized youth and women in low- and middle-income countries.

This study involved 1,540 women in rural Uttar Pradesh. We partnered with Obeetee, one of India’s largest carpet manufacturers. All participants were married women aged 18 to 40, living in areas where Obeetee was recruiting for employment. In the study, women were split into two groups: one that received training in assertive communication from WorldBeing, tailored to their context, and one that did not. 

We asked women about their communication strategies and employment before and after the training, and also collected data on their employment with Obeetee over the 11 months following training. We found that: 

  • Women who received the assertive communication training were significantly more likely to know and remember assertive communication techniques and to suggest assertive responses in a hypothetical husband-wife conflict.
  • For women facing their own, real-life husband-wife conflict regarding employment, the training was remarkably effective at shifting their employment and earnings. We looked specifically at women who wanted to work outside the home more than their husbands wanted them to. In this group, the assertive communication training raised the number of women who applied for employment with Obeetee, the number who actually worked, and women’s Obeetee earnings. A survey with women five months after training also revealed positive effects for these women on any employment, not just the Obeetee employment opportunity.
  • The impact of the training on Obeetee employment and earnings was lasting – at least 11 months after the training ended. Women who started out wanting to work outside the home more than their husbands wanted them to showed significantly increased earnings and employment participation 11 months after the training ended, when our data collection stopped.

Overall, these findings support the idea that short-term, locally-tailored communication interventions like WorldBeing's assertive communication training can significantly develop communication skills among women in low- and middle-income country settings like India. Further, this study suggests that building assertive communication skills can empower women to advocate for themselves within their households to take on work outside the home and establish their own income if they want to. Assertive communication training may well be a crucial ingredient that could lead to women’s empowerment, even in areas with substantial gender inequality.


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