Corporate inclusivity for the LGBTQ+ community: A look beyond Pride Month

How inclusive is the corporate world for people from the LGBTQ+ community beyond Pride Month?

Updated - June 11, 2024 05:47 pm IST

Published - June 11, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

A member and supporter of the LGBTQ community holds a rainbow flag during a Pride Parade in Chennai on June 1, 2024.

A member and supporter of the LGBTQ community holds a rainbow flag during a Pride Parade in Chennai on June 1, 2024. | Photo Credit: R.SATISH BABU

Prarthana Prasad is a social media influencer, entrepreneur and a leading voice from the LGBTQ+ community. At a recent Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) Conclave held in Bengaluru she opened up about how she is often a “token ticket” for the corporate world, increasingly contacted by brands for promotion during Pride Month.  

Ashish Chopra, co-founder of BeUnic, a queer-owned, community-driven platform for LGBTQ+ creators and entrepreneurs, also spoke to The Hindu, noting that while business peaks during Pride Month, it dips immediately after. 

Prasad and Chopra are not isolated cases. Many entrepreneurs who participated in the conclave attest to this and point out that their businesses experience a boom only during Pride Month when inclusion becomes a priority. 

As another Pride Month rolls around, the corporate world is reminded once again of the need for inclusivity. However, the question remains: how inclusive is the working environment for people from the LGBTQ+ community, and does this inclusivity extend beyond Pride Month? 

BeUnic, a queer-owned, community-driven platform for LGBTQ+ creators and entrepreneurs, organized the second edition of the DE&I Conclave at The Lalit Ashok, Bengaluru.

BeUnic, a queer-owned, community-driven platform for LGBTQ+ creators and entrepreneurs, organized the second edition of the DE&I Conclave at The Lalit Ashok, Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Special arranagement

The “Rainbow Ceiling” in corporate growth

At the Conclave organised by BeUnic on May 30, discussions centered around the “rainbow ceiling,” a barrier to the growth of queer individuals in the corporate sector. 

Delivering the keynote address, U.S. Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti emphasized the importance and complexity of managing diversity in large democracies like India and the U.S.A. He cited a McKinsey & Company report indicating that a diverse workforce is 35% more likely to achieve higher financial returns and 1.7 times more likely to be innovative. 

However, a study by the Kerala Development Society, on behalf of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), further reveals that 92% of transgender individuals are deprived of the right to participate in any form of economic activity. Additionally, 96% are forced into low-paying work, and only 2% live with their parents.  

Lack of queer representation in leadership

Aditya Batavia, a Diversity, Equity & Inclusivity leader with 12+ years of experience and a panelist at the conclave, identified four types of leaders regarding queer inclusion: those against it, those indifferent to it, those empathetic but uninformed, and those advocating for positive change.  

“Transgender people are often only provided with security and housekeeping jobs, regardless of their qualifications,” Batavia said, expressing concern about the lack of queer representation in leadership roles. 

According to a 2022 report by Out Leadership, a global LGBTQ+ platform, of the 5,670 board seats in the Fortune 500, only 25 (0.4%) are held by out LGBTQ+ individuals, with some seats held by the same persons.

Globally, only five Fortune 500 companies have LGBTQ+ policies within their proxy statements. Leadership positions remain largely inaccessible to queer individuals, and the workspaces present additional challenges in terms of inclusion. 

Queer experiences

Tarun (name changed), a non-binary entrepreneur, describes their struggles in expressing their sexuality in the corporate sector. “I always had to present myself as a masculine person to be taken seriously.”  

Sandeepta Das, Graphic & Visual Design Analyst at Accenture Operations, expresses how as an out and proud trans individual, she has experienced first-hand the difference an inclusive workplace can make to the lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals. “I have benefited from Accenture’s inclusive medical insurance plans. They covered all aspects of my transition-related health care. Being authentic is not always easy, but it is important to lead with positive examples”, added Das. 

Rutesh Rajani, an AI engineer, spoke to The Hindu and highlighted the disparity between the experiences of cisgender and visibly queer individuals in the workplace. “For the first 8-10 years of my career, I hid my sexuality in professional life because I found it safer. By the time I came out, I was in a position in my career where I would be taken seriously despite my sexuality.”  

However, he acknowledges that not every queer individual has this choice, underscoring the need for sensitization and inclusive practices in the Indian corporate world. 

Panellists Prarthna Prasad, Jaydeep Sarkar and Mujeer Pasha discussing Queer Representation in the Indian media and entertainment industry.

Panellists Prarthna Prasad, Jaydeep Sarkar and Mujeer Pasha discussing Queer Representation in the Indian media and entertainment industry. | Photo Credit: Special arranagement

Challenges for queer applicants in corporate jobs 

Ashish Chopra of BeUnic highlighted the struggles of queer applicants, explaining that “many organizations still hire queer individuals only at the bottom levels.” He noted that low pay in certain corporate jobs sometimes forces trans people to leave because they earn as much as sex workers at traffic signals.  

Chopra also emphasized that for the first 20 years of his life, he was just “pretending to be someone else,” which he feels reduces the confidence of queer individuals in the workplace. 

“Straight people already have an upper hand. They don’t have to go through all the struggle in terms of their sexual preference.” 

Inclusivity efforts in Corporate India 

Within the Indian corporate world, the attitude among leaders toward inclusivity vary drastically, ranging from the dismissive stance of Ola CEO Bhavish Aggarwal who criticized gender pronouns as an “illness” from the West, to the inclusive approach of Keshav Suri, Executive Director at The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, humorously remarked that their company “accepts heterosexuals too.” 

Sindhu Gangadharan, MD, SAP Labs India explains how in the journey towards true inclusion one must be vigilant against unconscious biases in hiring and promotion processes and create a culture where everyone feels empowered to speak up and contribute.  

Reflecting on the inclusive practices beyond just the pride month celebration, she says, “Pride@SAP, our first Employee Network Group (ENG) has now grown into a family of over 8000 LGBTQIA+ members and allies across various locations and helped in fostering a welcoming workplace”. 

While companies like Tech Mahindra which extends insurance benefits for the same sex partners of its employees have showcased inclusive policy changes, Ritushree Panigrahi (Bengaluru), a transwoman working in the corporate sector, points out the story is no the same across the industry. 

“Most corporations conduct DE&I workshops only for promotional purposes, and the actual groundwork for fostering well-being and career advancement is missing.” 

Progress in Karnataka 

In a landmark move in July 2021, Karnataka became the first state in India to reserve jobs in public employment for transgender persons through 1% horizontal reservation. Horizontal reservations allow for reservations based on multiple identities, such as transgender status, enabling a more inclusive approach. 

However, Panigrahi points out that although there are policies, often there is no groundwork for their implementation. She also stresses the need to employ queer individuals in positions where they can influence policy changes after the basic groundwork has been laid by the company. 

Nisha Gulur, Project Director at Sangama while speaking to The Hindu in an interview also added that “we are demanding the Karnataka government to provide coaching and technical skills for those who are going to apply for the government jobs.” This is crucial for the welfare of many trans individuals who drop out of schools due to bullying and have no access to formal job-related training.

Discussions at the Bengaluru conclave also emphasized initiatives like “family days,” encouraging employees to bring their partners and family members to work to foster acceptance through exposure. 

While efforts like the Trans Employment Mela and DE&I conclaves indicate progress, there is a long way to go in making corporate India genuinely inclusive for the LGBTQ+ community. The members of the community unanimously point out that superficial initiatives during Pride Month must evolve into sustained efforts throughout the year, focusing on education, sensitisation, and the implementation of inclusive policies.  

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