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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.