I visited Kolkata for Durga Pujo this year. I was delighted to see the creativity and hard work of the local artisans; hopping from one Pujo pandal to the other, their themes and installations can really surprise you (and of course, enchanting you). And when I say surprise, I really mean surprise. At the Nalin Sarkar Street pandal, I saw different religious faiths being represented at an apparently Hindu festival. My biggest surprise came when I landed at Dum Dum Park’s Pujo in North Kolkata. The first visual cue was a wall of rainbow-coloured kites. As we walked further into the pandal, we saw a sculptor of a child, locked inside a home, while being rebuked for being ‘girly’. Inside the main tent, a sculptor of a fairy was shown as breaking away from a cage, while pride masks hung all around. The idol of Durga was depicted as androgynous, as a mix of both Durga and Krishna. It was mounted on a rainbow-coloured hallow, connoting all the colours of Pride. The most striking detail was the third eye over the idol, with trans-women dancing.

As I let the Pandal fill me up, I realized that this was the first time I was witnessing a religious event/ gathering/ installation with a LGTBQIA++ theme. The Pandal was full and those who could not understand the LGBTQIA++ symbols depicted in the pandal turned to their friends and family to find more. And in this way, in the unlikeliest of places, thousands of people, for those 10 days of Durga Pujo were conversing on LGBTQIA++ inclusion. They will carry forward these conversations to other contexts, multiplying the impact of this pandal.

Being a Diversity and Inclusion professional, the image of this pandal is going to stay with me forever. In 2001, the Delhi-based NGO Naz Foundation approached Delhi High Court to decriminalize consensual sex between same-sex individuals. Eight years down the line, the Delhi HC struck down section 377 of the Indian Constitution; but the 2009 judgment of the HC was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013. A Review petition was filed, which was finally upheld by the SC in September 2018.

A legal journey of 17 years, countless years of activism and the journey still continues. To me, the Pandal in Dum Dum Park was a celebration of this remarkable journey, a way of sounding to all of us, our homes, public places and workplaces that this issue matters and our efforts towards inclusion are incomplete without committing ourselves to the rights of people with non-binary gender and sexual identities. In all its astuteness, the pandal also carried a message, which said, “Tumi dekho naari-purush, ami dekhi shudhui maanush” (You see woman-man, but I only see humans). This message, its humanness and lucidity has to become the cornerstone of all our efforts towards LGBTQIA++ inclusion.

LGBTQIA++ Inclusion in our Workplaces

In 2015, when Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad conducted a survey of 21 corporate companies to explore inclusivity, it revealed 98% of the companies do not take any initiative to make the workplace LGBTQIA++ inclusive. But that seems to be changing.

Companies like GodrejAccenture, Tata Steel, IBM India, Google, General Electric, Cognizant and Infosys have been implementing policies and rolling out interventions to ensure LGBTQIA++ inclusion at their workplaces. Numerous companies welcomed Supreme Court’s judgment for Section 377 last year. In a survey by Quartz India, as many as 67% LGBTQIA++ employees said that employers do not care about the employees’ sexual orientation. Among the industries that are the biggest employers of LGBTQIA++ in India, are media and entertainment, BPO, and IT.

A report by Mckinsey has shown that diverse and inclusive workplaces have 35% higher financial returns, which makes inclusivity essential, not only for the organizational culture but also for its profits. Studies have also revealed that LGBTQIA++ employees not only progress and grow professionally in inclusive work environments; but also have a positive impact on the productivity of their coworkers. Such organizations also have a competitive edge, have more customer support and attract and retain the best talent; apart from that, a strong and clearly differentiated reputation in the industry, especially as an employer.

Above all, inclusive workplaces can go a long way in enabling inclusive societies. Very much like that pandal in Kolkata, the conversations in our workplaces can shift individual mindsets; these individuals will take back these conversations to their homes and communities and generate more conversations. As the discourse will build, more visibility will gather around this issue, leading to action, inclusion and equality.

So what can workplaces do to spark this conversation?

Five Steps to a LGBTQIA++ Workplace

1) Create and Implement Policies: According to Catalyst, 91% of Fortune 500 companies now have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, and 83% include gender identity.

The right policies can operatinalize inclusion and delineate company’s position on LGBTQIA++ inclusion. For starters, companies should revise their medical and insurance policies. Medical policies should provide cover for sex-change surgeries and hormonal treatment. Since same-sex marriage is still not recognized in India, companies should accommodate the partners of LGBTQIA++ employees in their medical, insurance and other benefits.

Secondly, companies should reconsider their leave policies. Parental leave and adoption leave should be extended to LGBTQIA++ employees; it is recognition of their right to parenthood and their reproductive rights.

Thirdly, companies must put in place strong anti-discrimination and harassment policies, which cover all employees without an exception. They should be very clear about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and establish procedures for dealing with people who violate the policies. It should be ensured that allegations of discrimination or harassment are taken very seriously and procedures are followed through.

2) Change the Hiring Strategy: Along with inclusive policies, companies need to set a baseline for welcoming LGBTQIA++ employees. But what if hiring practices are preventing people from joining in the first place?

Companies can go over the wording of their job postings to ensure that they send the right message. Also companies should make an explicit mention of their commitment to non-discrimination and diversity, and talk about their values and employee benefits that demonstrate this commitment.

Companies can endeavour to reach beyond their usual demographics and partner with LGBTQIA++ employee networks and organisations in their area. They can participate in LGBTQIA++ recruitment events and share their job postings on networks and channels that are committed to the cause.

Then make sure that the interview and selection processes are transparent and fair, with no room for bias.

3) Drive away Stereotypes: Getting people through the door is only half the battle. What kind of working environment will the employees find when they arrive?

Discomfort doesn’t always lead to discrimination, but it’s clear that some employees will need training to ensure that they treat their coworkers with respect. Companies should provide diversity training to all staff that includes a module on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Employees are highly unlikely to actually sit down and read company policies. Training can help to ensure that they understand what’s in the policies, why LGBTQIA++ inclusion is imperative and what their responsibility is.

Lastly, training can help in overcoming unconscious biases and stereotypes that impact employees throughout their life cycle. Also, our everyday language tends to be sexist and homophobic and therefore exclusionary. Awareness sessions on understanding the appropriate terminology when talking about LGBTQIA++ and the impact of using pejorative or outdated terms, can go a long way in enabling an inclusive work environment.

4) Create Peer Networks: LGBTQIA++ employee networks can be very powerful ways for workers to come together and share experiences. That can lead to positive changes in company policy, as well as opportunities for mentoring, networking, and career progression for individual employees. Any company can set up these networks at very minimal costs or encourage its employees to set them up.

For example, Accenture has employee resource groups in 44 countries and an Ally program with more than 36,000 members. Its “Pride at Accenture” page on its website, with the bold heading “Be Your Authentic Self,” highlights the company’s policies and achievements and profiles some of its LGBTQIA++ employees. It also mentions Accenture’s own research showing that creating a culture of equality makes LGTBQIA++ professionals 1.5 times more likely to advance to manager or above and 3 times more likely to advance to senior manager or above.

5) Communicate Proactively: If a company has the right policies, an inclusive talent pipeline and a strong and sensitized workforce, it should find ways of communicating its commitment to external stakeholder, and also foster respectful communication among employees.

Companies can achieve this by embedding a commitment to inclusion in all its communications, from presentations and speeches to newsletters and personal conversations. They should bring on board Diversity and Inclusion experts plus communication experts, who can help chart out the right course of communication, while making it sustainable (take a cue from Accenture’s website).

Additionally, they can send their internal inclusivity champions to participate in events and conferences, like the Pride Parade and Festival. By getting involved in these events, a company can demonstrate its commitment to LGBTQIA++ rights and send a clear message to staff and customers.

Remember, this is not just a branding exercise; this can drive a message that this matters, needs constant action and engagement. This will also contribute to the larger discourse, sharing of best practices and motivating other companies to do the same.

These five steps are not an exhaustive list of what companies can do to enable LGBTQIA++ friendly workplaces. The struggle for inclusion and equality won’t be over for a long time and it will take many more Durga Pujo pandals and conversation starters to make it a reality. Companies will need to adapt along the way, evolve their policies and practices and keep abreast with what their employees feel and need.

But as we move forward in this journey, we need to ensure that LGBTQIA++ employees are able to lead and spearhead. While I write this as a cis/ straight person, I can only be an ally in the journey. I can understand but not speak from the experience of the discrimination and stigmatization that LGBTQIA++ persons face on an everyday basis. Experiences are our strongest capital in this journey, which can help us align, adapt and grow. Let the experiences of LGBTQIA++ persons inform and lead all our efforts and interventions. This is the only way through which we can truly make it for the people, by the people and with the people.

~ Neharika Mahajan