Diversity and Inclusion Policies in Workspaces in India: Can Workspaces be Queer?

This article examines the Diversity and Inclusion policies in Indian Workspaces (Godrej, Tata Steel, Axis Bank etc.), dissecting their nature of inclusion and identifying if they're queer feminist (or even feminist) in their application. Such policies have historically held a fundamentally politically unaware position as they are situated away from socio-political understanding. Instead, they emphasise productivity, diversity as tokenistic representation, and maximisation of profit all of which carefully caters to having specific optics in the international corporate arena. Analysing the heteronormativity of Indian workspaces, it will look at the context of gender neutrality, sexual harassment, obsession with performative allyship, construction of gender identities as corporate categories, and possible feminist alternatives.

Diversity and Inclusion Policies: A Brief History and Context

‘Diversity’ is “the varied perspectives and approaches to work that the members of different identity groups bring”. Inclusion can be understood as “the degree to which an employee is accepted and treated as an inside by others in a working system”. These are a part of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Policies to combat discrimination; prejudicial treatment based on one’s sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender performativity faced by the queer community.

In India, the study ‘Annual LGBT Workplace Diversity and Inclusion’ Survey by Mingle brought up the question “does one’s personal ‘sexual identity’ belong to the workplace?”. D&I policies opened up due to the era of globalisation, millennials joining the workforce, supported by the NALSA judgement, Section 377 ruling, and the Right to Privacy. Globalisation also meant ‘pink money’ among other corporate features. Studies have analysed the extent of the rhetoric of D&I, which actually meets the reality and expression of voice among minorities.

Axis Bank’s ‘Dil Se Open’ is not open to Lesbians

In 2021, Axis Bank announced that same-sex couples could open a joint bank account under its landmark policy of #Dil Se Open: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, with the tagline ‘Come As You Are,’ declared on 6th September 2021. It was supported by widespread marketing. Aligning with the Bank’s wider ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) commitments, it allows for gender-neutral dress code, all-gender restrooms, a redressal process based on human rights policy, and usage of the title ‘Mx’ and adding their same-sex partner as a nominee in their Savings or Term Deposit Accounts.

A few days after the policy announcement, @yesweexist on Instagram shared the story of Anisha Sharma (who identifies as lesbian), who wished to open an account with her partner in a Bangalore branch. They were questioned intrusively about their relationship, marriage document and told that they could not open an account unless they were business partners or related by blood. As they shared this humiliating and embarrassing experience on Twitter, more members of the queer community shared similar experiences, calling for accountability from Axis Bank until activist Harish Iyer (who is also the Head of D&I at Axis Bank) stepped in. Post this, and things worked out smoothly for Sharma and her partner, who also acknowledged their privilege to use Twitter and connections with Harish. Furthermore, they were also invited to participate in future training/interventions. Critically, there is a shifting of onus on the minority to educate.

The policy was rolled out seemingly on the third anniversary of the Section 377 ruling to create marketing, but no training or even documentation was provided to the staff. People shared that HDFC bank allows same-sex partners to open a joint account, provided they open it under “either-or survivor” instruction, but that is invisibilisation under the guise of equal treatment.

Diversity and Inclusion Policies in the Indian Workspaces

Godrej Industries’ Queeristan

Among D&I policies in India, one of the leading examples is Godrej Industries, where Parmesh Sahani is heading The Indian Culture Lab, which fosters community inclusion and involvement through human rights advocacy. They work on allyship, leadership programmes, and networking of the LGBT community to have interconnected layers within communities. It involves benefits, complaint redress, communication and partnership, sensitisation in the workspace, participation in pride walk, community engagement, and medical cover to same-sex partners. They have engaged with Kiruba Munusamy and Dhiren Borisa, with some work on masculinity, but these intersectional perspectives failed to figure out in the policy document.

As per ‘A Manifesto for Trans Inclusion in the Indian Workplace’ by Godrej’s India Culture Lab, the inclusion of LGBTQ leads to money (in terms of spending power of Indian LGBTQ), talent (Millennials, concept of brain drain), and reputation. For instance, with the Section 377 coverage, Godrej earned publicity equivalent of 11.7 crores INR. The Trans Inclusion “Strategy” (emphasis mine) includes active hiring effort, all-gender restroom, medical benefits, anti-discrimination policy, resource group, support for transitioning, advocacy policy, and being mindful of transpersons circumstances. The hiring focus is on giving up gendered language, using pronouns, and training employees.

Discrimination in the manifesto is defined as per The Anti-Discrimination Guidelines by UN GLOBE (2018), supplemented with public information campaigns. Here, discrimination covers refusal of services on account of one’s gender, non-consenting disclosure of details, denial of the restroom of gender choice, denial of dress code by gender choice, disrespect towards gender identity misgendering and deadnaming, degrading comments on gender identity, physical, verbal, or sexual harassment, and failure to hire, promote, or terminate employment contract because of gender identity.

Parmesh Sahani’s work Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace locates D&I in terms of money, talent, PR, and keeping up with the millennials (it offers LGBTQ relocation policies, LGBTQ friendly leave policy, and LGBTQ Job Fairs). Keshav Suri Foundation runs several similar initiatives within the hospitality industry. Although Sahani includes measures for transpersons, there is the exclusion of intersex people. The chapter titled Step Five: Become an Advocate for LGBTQ Issues Outside the Company does not discuss political rights in justice or a rights-based framework. The text is fabricated carefully within a corporate culture, not emphasising a systemic, socio-political understanding of discrimination, sexual harassment, and a non-normative engagement with inclusion.

Tata Consultancy Services and Tata Steel

Tata Consultancy Services recently became the first Tata entity to extend medical cover benefits to LGBT employees, covering same-sex partners, irrespective of their marital status, and covering 50% cost of sex reassignment surgery (up to a maximum of 2 lakhs). This was done when Boston Consultancy Group's report highlighted that LGBT+ inclusive companies earn more revenue from international sources without suffering negative revenue impacts. Tata Steel says D&I is a way of life and culture of allyship as they were featured in The India Workplace Equality Index Top Employers 2020 Report. This tool was created by Keshav Suri Foundation, Pride Circle, and Stonewall to measure the progress of LGBT inclusion in the workplace with confidential criteria.

Tata Steel’s D&I initiative MOSAIC aims to have 25% of the workshop as diverse groups focusing on sensitisation, recruitment, retention and development, infrastructure, and celebration. They have shared stories, a window with a guide for coming out, and allyship tool kit, an illustrative page on love is love, trans trainees at JNTVTI (capability development wing), WINGS (an LGBTQ+ resource group), join house points, honeymoon package, gender confirmation (leave and reimbursements), gender-neutral parental and childcare leave, support for mental health. These are based on a heteronormative understanding of same-sex couples and exclude transpersons, gender non-conforming, non-binary people, and alternative modes of kinship. It also mentions “partners would mean people of same-sex living like a married couple”.

Reasons for Hiring LGBT People: The Economic Cost of Exclusion

The Economic Cost of Stigma and the Exclusion of LGBT People: A Case Study of India illustrates economic and development issues from a human capital perspective with LGBT exclusion in workspaces. As per LGBT Foundation in Hong Kong, if the queer community were a country, it would be the fourth largest GDP. Exclusion reduces the productivity of labour and economic output. Even workspaces with an educated workforce can lack sensitivity. The report makes the “business case for diversity”. It addresses the lack of hiring opportunities, differences between urban and rural space, HIV/AIDS, suicidality, mental health, marriage rights, minority stress, lack of fundamental rights and services, looks at caste and tribe through multiple critical studies. Nevertheless, these are nowhere to be found in most policies discussed in this paper.

Along with the Indian Workplace Equality Index, D&I policies are also introduced through other initiatives like Lilac Insights launching ‘The Gender-Friendly Healthcare Facility Initiative,’ IBM and Goldman Sachs also released employers resource guide ‘Creating Inclusive Workplaces for LGBT Employees in India,’ Verisk released Hiring LGBT+ Talent: A Best Practices Guide. The intersections of mental health and LGBTQI+ people in the Indian workplace did nothing to highlight the intersections other than discussing healthy workplaces for wellness. Here, “diversity is good for business.” It leads to productivity, performance, attraction and retention, appealing to Gen Y, and market share. These rainbow laden reports rarely mention the word ‘queer’ itself but are full of other buzzwords and fuzzwords.

Evaluation concerning Framing, Implementation, and Revision

Gender-Neutrality and Sexual Harassment

Most corporates now seem to be using gender-neutrality to indicate their progressiveness. It also allows for cis-men to complain against cis-women. Godrej’s policy mentions “person” as gender-neutral within the companies we have discussed. Along with the POSH Act definition of sexual harassment, it extends to any implicit or explicit promise of preferential treatment or detrimental treatment or employment status or creating intimidating/offensive/hostile work environment, humiliating treatment, or treatment likely to affect health or safety. Axis Bank works to redress discrimination on caste, disability, sexual orientation, but their Human Rights Policy does not mention it. In Queeristan, there is a gender-neutral POSH Policy which can be harmful. It might harm policies that benefit specific gender or divert attention from the needs of minorities who do not fit the idea of the person the approach is based on, usually a cis-man.

The book Queer at Work by Sasmita Palo and Kumar Kunal Jha understands the nature of sexual harassment through a lens of power and maintenance of gender hierarchy, i.e. in a structural sense. Sexual Identity in the workplace is associated with power and conflict, which Indian workspaces fail to highlight. We need to enquire about how gendered policy research understands gender as a system of power. Jha further discusses discrimination as non-verbal, verbal, and physical, all these definitions and understanding are missing in the D&I policies we have discussed so far. This makes it challenging to report non-verbal discrimination specifically as it’s not codified. Jha also argues for a gender-neutral definition that looks at sexual harassment irrespective of gender, beyond the heteronormative understanding.

The Heteronormativity of the Workplace

Queer at Work also substantiates that traditional D&I research is limited to women as a one-dimensional identity. Queer at work, on the other hand, explores the heteronormativity of the workspaces, their construction as per life for a man, and an argument for inclusive masculinity. It also highlights the space and needs to maintain the personal-professional divide for queer people at non-accepting places. As Jha explores in his work, simple questions like “What did you do on the weekend?” can indicate sexual orientation. Jha also discusses ‘courtesy stigma’ stigma attached to those who associate with the stigmatised and how that is pervasive in some workspaces, leading to a form of ‘othering.’ The work culture fails to address the myths related to the community as most organisations follow a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy concerning non-normative gender and sexual orientation of their employees.

The “marriage question” also comes up, locating the cultural segregation and appropriateness concerning the type of communication allowed in a space as marriage provides ‘legibility’ to a relationship through a legal and social lens. Jha and Palo argue for having a written policy as even within the Indian Fashion Industry, which is perceived as queer-friendly and dominated by men, queer people face harassment. Although, the presence of queer men makes the space safe for women clients, there is a need to focus on the positive implications of coming out in one’s workplace and having queer people in leadership roles. Here, power comes in where a sharing of power leads to a “win-win” situation so that groups have the political power to influence policy to redistribute power. Redsitribution is crucial as many queer people work much harder to have skills to compensate for the disfavour of their non-normative identity.

The Obsession with Allyship

Pride Circle, which proclaims itself as “India's premier Diversity & Inclusion consulting mission of Social Equity by affirmative action for LGBTI community in India,” released an anthology titled equALLY, featuring 45 stories from allies. It is “supposedly” about inclusion, solidarity, co-existence, public and private support (but not political), acceptance-advocacy-action, etc. All allies are paternalistic/superior figures as per their understanding. This obsession with allies infantilises queer people, inculcating a ‘saviour complex’ and fails to cover how queer people evaluate straight allies. There is no mention of advocacy for political rights or addressing problematic allyship.

Gender Identities or Corporate Categories?

Within D&I policies, identities beyond same-sex couples are excluded, and the trans identity is used tokenistically. Asexuality, which lies outside the basic understanding of how we look at sex and sexuality does not even figure in any of the policies. One needs to question if queer, gender non-conforming, transpersons, and non-binary people need to assimilate into the same-sex category to avail benefits? Consequently, identities end up becoming corporate categories and initiatives for management by authorities.

We need to critique these policies through the lens of queer theory and the failure of workspaces in ‘queering’ gender minorities. ‘Queering’ of work here would imply going beyond the binary framework that solely emphasises same-sex partners. It goes beyond minorities’ private sexual preferences to “normative versus alternative expressions (and oppressions) of gender, masculinity, femininity, identities and desires, sexuality vis-a-vis conflict, tokenism, and corporatisation”. Furthermore, organisations can be keen to use one’s minority status to educate others, adding an expectation of free labour.

Towards Feminist Alternatives

From the feminist policy analysis framework provided by Beverly McPhail, D&I policies should involve an overall rework of the space. As per Kimberle Crenshaw and Angela P. Harris, this involves addressing multiple identities in various axes. Sensitisation training should differentiate sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression. ‘Anti-Discrimination Policies’ should clearly define discrimination in all its forms, including case-based discrimination within Indian workspace. Caste cannot be erased simply due to the global nature of spaces. When language is ungendered, women and gender minorities become invisible in solutions. Consequently, pronouns become performative as they do not give a nuanced understanding of identity, gender-inclusive language, and validation.

A feminist policy here would mean no objectivity or neutrality as these modes support male domination. This would involve doing away with binaries, reconceptualising power, acknowledging personal is political and using lived experiences. For instance, A Gaysi Guide to the Workplace for Queer Folx decodes pinkwashing, transparent barriers (glass ceilings and glass elevators), and how The Mental Health Care Bill can be used. Clause 21(1)(a) of the bill provides for rights against discrimination on any basis including gender, sex, sexual orientation, religion, culture, caste, social or political beliefs, class or disability").

D&I policy should be based on justice, advocacy, and rights; and not on profit or image with delegation to an inclusion provider agency. The idea of progressiveness, empowerment, and liberation equated with labour productivity ignores many issues, especially those at the intersection of caste and class in India. D&I policies do have value in improving material reality for LGBTQIA+ individuals but at the cost of assimilation into the heteronormative work culture, making much of the work performative and tokenistic with no comprehensive, meaningful queering of the workspace. Summing up, D&I does not acknowledge the historical marginalisation of the members of the queer community. We need to question whether such policies translate to critical questioning and restructuring of the workspaces via a gender lens.

By Rajeev Anand Kushwah

Rajeev Anand Kushwah is a Queer Bahujan Gender Studies Scholars pursuing an M.A. in Women's Studies at TISS, Mumbai. He is a writer at Feminism in India, Gaysi, and The Reclamation Project. He is also an overthinker, a self-proclaimed chef, a pop-culture enthusiast and a poet/writer. His research interests include queer experiences, feminist ethics of care, and pop culture.

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