Corporates are becoming more inclusive in a post-Section 377 world

Nikesh Pushkaran, 35, and Sonu M S, 31, live in bustling Ernakulam in Kerala. Their most memorable — and courageous — outing is the trip they took to the Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple in July 2018. Pushkaran and Sonu wanted to spend their lives together, and the trip to Guruvayur was to get married, a journey they made without telling a soul.

Since no priest would agree to officiate, the couple simply exchanged rings and garlands on the temple grounds. “Marriage is a human right, not a heterosexual privilege,” they say. More than a year later, the couple has now approached the Kerala High Court seeking legitimacy of their union. “We also want a joint bank account,” says Pushkaran.

“After our wedding, we received death threats from people of different religions. They even threatened our families. But things have quietened down since Section 377 was scrapped,” says Pushkaran. While Sonu works with a multinational company, Pushkaran is a businessman who runs a restaurant while doubling as a stockbroker. The latter joyfully recounts how his partner was received at his workplace with “hugs and congratulations” once the couple returned from Guruvayur.

Sonu’s colleagues celebrating with the couple months before the draconian Section 377 was read down, in September 2018, is a reflection of a society in transition. And an increasing number of workplaces is responding to this change.

The last few months, for instance, have marked a significant shift in Sonal Pradhan’s life. She talks of good co-workers and department heads, and how she feels included in her new workplace in Bengaluru, at California-headquartered multinational [24] Around this time last year, Pradhan, 30, from Sambalpur in Odisha, was coming to terms with the fact that she might have to let go of her job simply because she couldn’t find long-term housing. She used to work as a trainer in plastic processing at the Central Institute of Plastic Engineering and Technology in Bhubaneswar. “I had got this job with great difficulty. People don’t want to hire a transgender woman. I was running out of housing options for the same reason.”

On hearing of a job fair in Bengaluru specifically for the LGBTQ (an umbrella term for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people) community last July, Pradhan decided to venture out of the state.

The job fair was organised by Pride Circle, a Bengaluru-based placement and consultancy agency. Called Reimagining Inclusion for Social Equity, or RISE, the affair saw 43 candidates being placed in a variety of roles in multinational companies as well as homegrown startups. The aggregate cost to company through these placements stands at ~3.9 crore. More than 35 companies attended the first edition of the fair; the second edition will be held on February 22 at The LaLiT hotel in Delhi. Besides talk sessions, the event will also showcase close to 20 LGBTQ-owned businesses.

Events such as these are manifestations of the steady change in the culture of workplaces in the country. Once marginalised to the point of invisibility, a pride of young Indians is now claiming its rightful space across industries.

Though it didn’t specifically mention equal rights and employment, the Supreme Court’s striking down of Section 377 and decriminalisation of same-sex relationships offered companies a legal stronghold to formally recognise members of the LGBTQ community.

“Besides the fact that it’s the decent thing to do, LGBTQ inclusion makes strong business sense,” says Mumbai-based Parmesh Shahani, head of the Godrej India Culture Lab and author of a forthcoming book called Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in Corporate India (published by Westland, the book will be out in May). Part memoir, part manifesto, the book details how Godrej became an inclusive company and outlines how others can follow suit. The memoir part focuses on life stories, like the time the author found himself in a swimming pool with Bill Gates. (“Read the book to know what happened next,” laughs Shahani.)

A 2018 study by the Boston Consulting Group says that increasing diversity in the leadership team leads to better innovation and higher profit margins. But no one advocates diversity for diversity’s sake. “We encourage companies to do multiple rounds of interviews to encourage meritocracy,” says Srini Ramaswamy, who co-founded Pride Circle with Ramkrishna Sinha in 2017.

While Sinha is a former techie from Intel, Ramaswamy headed the diversity and inclusion team for Cisco (Asia Pacific region) before both of them quit to establish Pride Circle. The organisation currently has 10 chapters across India, including presences in Hyderabad, Delhi, Chennai, Pune and Jamshedpur, where they foster support groups as well as host dialogues between companies and the queer community. “If everyone had equal employment opportunities then we wouldn’t need a platform like ours. But members of the LGBTQ community do face discrimination and hence the need for affirmative action,” says Sinha.

Scenarios such as one in which a gender-transitioning employee is discouraged from interacting with clients, or gay people are fearful of team-building activities outside office, which can in turn affect year-end reports, are some of the systemic barriers, says Sinha. “This is why it’s important to consciously create spaces that are safe and inclusive.”

“Companies are recognising that if they don’t create inclusive workspaces the talent will go elsewhere. And it’s not just about employees alone. Young customers care about what you as a company stand for and how progressive you are,” says Shahani.

Last December, Tech Mahindra announced that same-sex couples will be able to avail of 12 weeks of paid adoption leave. The company now also offers bereavement leave of three days to same-sex partners. Both updates bring homosexual couples on par with hetero in terms of benefits.

“We regularly conduct sensitisation and awareness campaigns for our employees and have rolled out special learning resources that foster better understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQ community,” says Smriti Ahuja, vice president, human resources, Cognizant. Besides running in-house programmes to foster inclusivity (like Tech Mahindra’s Kaleidoscope and Cognizant’s EMBRACE), a number of companies have also broadened their health insurance policy coverage to same-sex couples. Godrej, the Tata group and Capgemini offer insurance plans for gender reassignment surgeries. At Tata, LGBTQ employees and their partners are also eligible for holiday and travel allowances, besides adoption leave. Accenture and IBM also offer medical insurance to same-sex couples, as does Citigroup India. Zomato offers paid leave to new parents, including to same-sex partners.

At the LaLiT Suri Hospitality Group, employees with same-sex partners are offered healthcare plans, which include their partners as well as any children. The plan extends to gender reaffirmation surgeries.

Many of these organisations have also replaced the term “spouse” with the more inclusive “partner” in all official paperwork. Gender neutral (or gender inclusive) washrooms have also cropped up in many workplaces.

In Pradhan’s case, her financial independence has translated into a mending of broken familial relationships. She sends a chunk of her salary back home every month.

Even though both multinationals and homegrown startups stand behind the LGBTQ workforce, much remains to be done on the ground. Meanwhile, the couple from Kerala is looking forward to its court dates and continues to have faith in the legal system. “The truth is on our side,” says Pushkaran.

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