Some years ago, a World Bank report indicated that homophobia and the exclusion of LGBTI+ people in India had a significant economic cost in terms of loss of GDP. On account of factors such as social stigma leading to mental health issues or the fear of being oneself at home and in any public space including the workplace, the community has been denied the opportunity to leverage choices and its own skills, and explore freely its ability to sustain itself with dignity and contribute to the economy.
There is no quick-fix solution for the inclusion of LGBTI+ people in the workplace, but organisations such as the Bangalore-based Pride Circle have been working relentlessly in this direction.
Set up two years ago by Srini Ramaswamy and Ramkrishna Sinha, both seasoned professionals in the diversity and inclusion (D&I) space, Pride Circle has about 500 followers – a mix of LGBTI+ people, allies from the corporate world and workplace inclusion consultants. It has organised over a dozen events including round-tables and webinars with business and mental health leaders from across India and the world, and is now aiming to make history with India’s first LGBTI+ job fair, RISE, on July 12 in Bangalore.
In a conversation, Pride Circle’s co-founders shared their views and plans for workplace inclusion and the RISE job fair.
Workplace inclusion has emerged as a buzz term for sections of industry ever since Section 377 was read down last September. How do you view this sudden interest in the LGBTI talent pool?
The reading down of Section 377 has enabled the LGBTI+ community to ask for a workplace where they are treated with dignity and respect. It has broken the silence surrounding the bullying faced by LGBTI employees – for instance, an ex-employee of Tech Mahindra tweeted about the harassment he faced from the person heading the company’s D&I department. The tweet led to an internal investigation and eventually resulted in the termination of the D&I head.
Today, in addition to such action, industry has shown a willingness to talk about LGBTI+ inclusion, change policies and engage with the community.
There’s a view that the industry could have taken steps towards inclusion long before Section 377 was read down. After all, being gay was never a crime. How do you see this?
Many inclusive organisations like IBM, Goldman Sachs and Godrej championed the cause of LGBTI+ inclusion despite Section 377 because the law did not prohibit organisations from fostering equality and inclusiveness in the workplace. However, some organisations were extra cautious. They were worried about the implications of any potential abetment to a violation of Section 377.
For the LGBTI+ community, inclusion has often remained a policy in the rule books of corporations, to be leveraged for goodwill rather than implementation. What is your take on this?
Inclusion takes a great deal of effort. To create a culture where everyone feels they belong requires action, patience and a long-term plan. While there is plenty of research on the benefits of diversity and its positive impact on the bottom-line, that aspect is either missed out or gets relegated to the bottom of the to-do list.
There is a lot of work to be done in benchmarking good practices and grading the performance of companies from time to time. What also needs to be addressed is research-based evidence on the various factors that impact the community and how they present real challenges for any LGBTI+ person in the workplace. It is a journey as much for the industry as it is for the community.
In the Indian context, we have seen only a handful of local companies adopting inclusive policies. The leaders, so to speak, are largely MNCs, that too from the IT and financial services sectors. Despite the statements made by FICCI on inclusion last year, why is there such slackness when it comes to moving towards the goal of diversity and inclusion in the workplace?
MNCs come with the advantage of having seen such efforts in their workplaces in the Americas or Europe or the Philippines, and due to their learnings from diverse geographies they have reaped the benefits of inclusion. So while they lead the pack due to this advantage, we are seeing more Indian companies like Godrej, Tata Steel, TCS and Infosys working towards LGBTI+ inclusion.
What made you think of organising a job fair such as RISE?
We have worked with multiple organisations, assisting them in drawing up a strategy of inclusion and an action plan. There have been many conversations, stories, panel discussions and awareness sessions which are great and create an impact, but they proceed at their own pace. We want to accelerate the pace of inclusion.
We realised that many LGBTI+ people are either unemployed or underemployed. Hiding your identity at the workplace impacts productivity and in turn impacts careers, restricting the potential of LGBTI+ employees. We also wanted to create an opportunity for visionary leadership organisations to take affirmative action.
Till now the narrative has been: you will not be hired because you are different, you won’t be a ‘fit’ despite your skillset. We want to change that narrative to “you are welcome, we celebrate the difference”.
The job fair is an opportunity to not only hire skilled LGBTI+ talent but also to reach out and extend a welcoming hand to those from the marginalised transgender community who have been treated as outcastes. Kicked out of home, bullied in school and denied admission in college, they may not have the requisite educational qualifications, but they surely have skills and the ambition to work hard to make a living. We want companies to open their doors to this section too.
Will RISE be limited to a one-off event in Bangalore or will it travel to other cities as well?
RISE in Bangalore is just the beginning, and we plan to travel to 10 cities where Pride Circle has a presence. There are LGBTI+ people everywhere and so are the jobs. Our job is to match LGBTI+ talent with inclusive organisations all over India.
Sharif D. Rangnekar is a communications and workplace sensitisation (LGBTI+) consultant and former journalist. He is the author of Straight To Normal – My Life As A Gay Man