Beyond Section 377 – Is Corporate India 'LGBT+' Inclusive?

By Archana Jerath November 27, 2018
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On 6th September 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that consensual adult gay sex is not a crime. This historic judgment from the country's apex court revised the much debated Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and decriminalised gay sex. This landmark judgment has provided Indian citizens the freedom to express themselves and be who they are. Now that the law has been changed to become more inclusive, the real journey for social inclusion begins. One of the biggest challenges ahead is the need for a massive mindset change in Indian Society.

The SHRM India Annual Conference and Expo 2018 witnessed a session on the topic, 'Beyond Section 377 – Is corporate India 'LGBT+' inclusive?' The panel was moderated by Sarika Bhattacharya, CEO of BD Foundation, and included four panellists:  Ashok Row Kavi, journalist and founding chairperson of the Humsafar Trust; Ishaan Sethi, founder and CEO of Delta App; Amita Karadkhedkar, Assistant Vice President at Barclays Spectrum; and Veena Gopalakrishnan, Employment Law Expert at AZB and Partners.

Current Stances on the Issue

Amita, who transitioned from male to female while working at Barclays Bank, has been a trailblazer in promoting LGBTQ workplace policies.  She explained how a system of insensitivity has developed across companies, which have a system of hiring based on meritocracy. However, this system is flawed because there is a human bias involved in recruitment and is mainly managed by the privileged gender, she says. Representation-based hiring is looked down upon in organizations because it is considered to be flawed in comparison to the meritocracy-based hiring system, which in fact is quite flawed, says Amita. This leads to an imbalance of power at workplaces, introducing them to a system of inherent misogyny and patriarchy. Hence, organizations need to take clear steps to provide a holistic solution to this issue. Only then can they foster a culture of diversity and inclusion, Amita says.

Ishaan Sethi, founder of the Delta App for the LGBTQ community, has faced the lack of safe spaces as a homosexual. At Delta, he works with companies to introduce inclusive workplace practices. He firmly opines that employers need to go beyond advertising themselves as a friend of the community. They need to bring effective changes on the ground to make their organizations safer. Such an action on their part will create an organization that thrives on diversity and bring in a multitude of perspectives.

The Impact of Social Stigma

One of the major challenges in front of Indian society is to normalise the LGBT+ community. Ishaan explained how he suffered in his childhood and went into depression due to the constant bullying he faced in his heteronormative community. After a stint abroad, coming back to India further accentuated the need for creating an inclusive environment.

The same social stigma is a part of corporate workplaces too. Ashok gave an example of how mainstream brands are not sensitising their staff to treat everyone equally. This was highlighted with his poor experience with a call centre executive who hung up on him upon learning about his same sex partner. Similarly, office picnic invitations are often extended to spouses, but due to the stigma associated with being gay, people with same sex partners cannot bring their partners along.

The Legal Implications of Being LGBT+

Sarika posed a question on the kind of challenges that are ahead of us after the historic judgment. In response to her query, Ashok shed light on the challenges that members of the LGBT+ community currently face in India. The biggest challenge is the resistance that a person has to face socially once he or she decides to come out. There is a social backlash which is often based on a misconception that the community will become more vocal.

And while the court has decriminalised gay sex, there are still major legal issues that need attention. For example, it is still difficult to nominate your same sex partner on insurance forms. Also, any family member can challenge a registered will of a person who has nominated a same sex partner.

The adoption process in India is also a glaring example of how the law isolates the gay community. A gay man cannot adopt either a male or a female child in India. It is a violation of his right to raise a family, but laws shut such people out of the family system.

Inclusion is a Win-Win for Everyone

Employers are set to gain from any efforts they make towards introducing inclusion and diversity to their work floors. There are roughly 90 million people in India who are part of the LGBT+ community. HR needs to rethink the ways in which they can include this community and normalise the office experience for them. This can be beneficial in several ways. Already, there are several BPOs in India that are looking for transgender candidates for their call centres. This is a solution to solve a perennial problem. When an executive makes a call, on the other end of the phone there might be a man who could intimidate a female representative, or a woman who is not comfortable talking to a male representative. With a transgender hire, there is little scope for such issues.

Another workplace issue is that of bullying. Amita stressed how often the LGBT+ community is bullied at workplace. They are mocked or forced to come out when they are not ready. It affects their ability to work productively. Organizations need to take action to stop this immediately, which may begin with trainings and workshops to stop discrimination against the LGBT+ community. There needs to be a mechanism to check any kind of discrimination that is both time-bound and confidential.

Companies can take steps to make the lives of LGBT+ employees easier at work. For example, something as simple as adding gender-neutral bathrooms is a big plus for transgender employees and makes them feel at ease. Sexual harassment policies should also be added to protect employees irrespective of their gender. Line managers should be sensitised to the needs of their LGBT+ team members.  By letting people be themselves, an organization can make them more productive and efficient.

On the economic front, the LGBT+ community drives a $1 trillion 'pink' economy. Homophobia is affecting countries like India negatively. It turns smart and educated young people away from India as they move to countries that provide them a safe environment to be themselves. It also affects the scope of tourism as people do not want to visit a homophobic country. In 2015, McKinsey reported that gender-diverse employers outperform their peers by 15%, while ethnically diverse companies outperform their peers by 25-30%. Quite clearly, diversity leads to more success. 

To view the session, please click on the link here

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