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

Updated: Apr 1

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This article examines Diversity, Equity/Equality and Inclusion policies, and suggests possible alternatives to locate them in a queer-feminist context. Analysing the heteronormativity of workspaces, the author looks at the context of gender neutrality and sexual harassment, allyship, and construction of identities as corporate categories, offering possible feminist alternatives. The primary references in the article are Dr M.V. Lee Badgett’s work, ‘The Economic Cost of Stigma and the Exclusion of LGBT People: A Case Study of India’ and Sasmita Palo and Kumar Kunal Jha’s ‘Queer At Work.’

DEI - Diversity, Equity or Equality and Inclusion

Diversity, Equity/Equality and Inclusion Policies combat discrimination; prejudicial treatment based on one’s sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender performativity faced by the queer community and extend to other marginalized communities as well. Such policies have historically held a fundamentally politically unaware position as they are situated away from socio-political understanding. Instead, they work through a business model emphasizing productivity (the business case), diversity as representation, and maximisation of profit — all of which carefully caters to having specific optics at times.

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?”. DEI policies opened up during the era of globalization, 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.

The Business Case for Diversity

Dr M.V. Lee Badgett’s work, 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,” which fits the corporate structure. 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. These multiple axes of identities and social location(s) are still yet to be introduced in key DEI policies.

Here, “diversity is good for business.” It leads to productivity, performance, attraction and retention, appealing to Gen Y, and market share. So many DEI reports end up becoming rainbow laden reports that are replete with buzzwords and fuzzwords but studies focussing on impact of DEI policies are unavailable due to lack of data collection.

Gender-Neutrality and Sexual Harassment

Most corporations have opted gender-neutrality to indicate their progressiveness. A gender-neutral POSH Policy is a welcome change but has its own demerits, particularly allowing cis-men to counter sue cis-women if the implementation is not done sensitively. Gender-neutral policies in general run the risk of harming policies that benefit specific gender or divert attention from the needs of minorities who do not fit the idea of the person the approach of the policy is usually based on, usually a cis-man. For instance, in many policies around gender neutral dress-code, the idea limits itself to allowing women to wear pants. A queer-feminist point would consider why can’t that garment be a skirt or ask who feels comfortable in which attire and why? and how is that important in our everyday context?

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 most workspaces fail to highlight. This is also substantiated from the lack of diverse people in leadership positions. 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 part of DEI policies but required structured definition. For instance, non-verbal discrimination can be difficult to report if it’s not codified. Jha also argues for a gender-neutral definition that looks at sexual harassment through the axis of power, hierarchy and privilege irrespective of gender, beyond the heteronormative understanding.

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The Heteronormativity of the Workplace

Queer at Work also substantiates that traditional DEI research is limited to women as a one-dimensional identity. It explores the heteronormativity of the workspaces, their construction as per life for a man, and supports an argument for inclusive masculinity. It 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” comes up especially in context of the Supreme Court’s judgement on marriage equality in India. This is located in 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. Some companies are making a positive impact by providing services to same-sex couples that the government hasn’t put into law yet.

Jha and Palo argue for having a written policy as even within the Fashion Industry, which is perceived as queer-friendly and dominated by men, queer people face harassment. 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.” Redistribution is crucial as many queer people work much harder to have skills to compensate for the disfavour of their non-normative identity.

The heteronormativity is carried forward in understanding of allyship as well. As with the larger understanding, allies are thought of as paternalistic/superior figures who have the power to make change. While making the right choice is situated in the moral case for inclusion through DEI policies, the obsession with allies infantilizes queer people, inculcating a ‘saviour complex’ and fails to cover how queer people evaluate straight allies. Allyship should have components of advocacy for political rights and also address the issues with problematic allyship. What needs to be noted is that allyship is not fixed, and it should come in the form of unconditional support (without any saviour complex) focussing on provision of access to marginalized communities.

Gender Identities

Within DEI policies, identities beyond same-sex couples are often excluded, and the trans identity is still misunderstood. Asexuality, which lies outside the basic understanding of how we look at sex and sexuality does not even figure in understanding of workplaces at the moment. 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? and consequently, how do we focus on policies that are inclusive to all.

One needs to critique the policies through the lens of queer theory and the failure of workspaces in ‘queering’ gender minorities, to map out better alternatives or changes in them. ‘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, which again falls into the complex relationship between allies have with the minorities.

Towards Feminist Alternatives

From the feminist policy analysis framework provided by Beverly McPhail, DEI 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. When language is ungendered, women and gender minorities become invisible in solutions if the policies are not framed sensitively. Consequently, pronouns become performative when only used around queer people as they do not give a nuanced understanding of identity, gender-inclusive language, and validation.

In the Indian context, Caste cannot be erased simply due to the global nature of spaces. In the column Dalitality by Dr. Suraj Yengde, Vaibhav Wankhehe wrote the post The Designated Dalit in a corporate workplace. The post delves into the everyday experience of caste in a corporate space, that too considering the current socio-political climate of the climate. They write about the presence of dominant religion through celebrations and incentivisation without doing any deep thinking about what a particular occasion symbolises. What particularly is mentioned is how caste even though a reality for Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasis people is seen as invisible. And at the same time, it’s flaunted in a manner where it’s normalized through what’s considered as traditional.

This brings up the question of implementation of affirmative action to ensure the workplace represents the demographics of the society we live in. The intersections of mental health and LGBTQI+ people in the Indian workplace is one document that discusses healthy workplaces for wellness. Beyond wellness, mental health encompasses so much of our lived realities. And even further, ‘disability’ is also a crucial axis which needs to account for not just visible disabilities, but invisible disabilities and neurodiversity. This again involves restructuring the physical spaces but also ways of working, management, interview tests, and modes of communication etc.

A feminist policy here would mean no objectivity or neutrality as these modes can end up supporting 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 laws on wages, workplace discrimination, and protection from sexual harassment can be amended to expand the meaning of gender amongst other identities in workplaces.

DEI policies cater to the business case focussing on profit, talent acquisition, and building up image with delegation to an inclusion provider agency. This should also incorporate ideas of justice, advocacy, and rights; as a collaboration between the business case and the moral case can bring out the best practices. The idea of progressiveness, empowerment, and liberation can be a part and parcel of labour productivity but not without including the intersection of caste and class among other social locations.

DEI policies do have value in improving material reality for LGBTQIA+ individuals but this can come at the risk of assimilation into the heteronormative work culture, providing lesser queering of the workspace. Summing up, DEI has to acknowledge the historical marginalisation of the members of the queer community along with other marginal identities and have space for critical questioning and restructuring of the workspaces via an intersectional lens.


By: Rajeev

Rajeev is a researcher-writer with research interests in inclusion studies, queer experiences, feminist ethics of care, and masculinities. They completed their undergraduate graduation in Political Science Hons. from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi and then graduated with Masters in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai). They were a participant at the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute, University of Iowa for the 2021-22 session and have been the recipient of Mavelinadu Collective’s grant for non-fiction for the first issue of Debrahmanising Gender. Their work can be found in EPW, Women’s Link Journal, Shuddhashar, Gaysi and Hindu College Gazette among others.


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