It’s a memory that often reminds Rajiv Sharma how far he’s come in his worklife. In 2005, while chalking out plans around hiring Sharma, an interviewer from a multinational company asked him about his family. Sharma opened up about his personal life for the first time at a workplace. The moment he spoke about being in a same-sex relationship, the interviewer disconnected the phone and went incommunicado. Shaken by the incident, Sharma returned to his old firm, deciding to stay silent about his sexuality.
Cut to 2021. The 45-year-old recently shared a photograph of his partner on a popular professional social network with a caption that talked about inclusivity at his current workplace. “That (2005) incident took me two steps backwards. For years, I avoided conversations about my personal life. Things have changed now,” says Sharma, director (people and culture), at gaming company Aristocrat India. It may have taken Sharma years to be vocal about his sexuality, but as a future recruiter to rise in ranks, he learnt a valuable lesson that day. “You need to know people beyond their skills,” he says. “In interviews, make them comfortable in their skin.”
With June hailed as Pride month, a movement to recognise rights of the queer community, across the world, India Inc. is working hard to build bias-free workplaces, especially after the Supreme Court’s landmark judgement decriminalising homosexuality in 2018. It’s no longer uncommon to see social media profiles and official email signatures displaying personal pronouns. Singer-actor Demi Lovato last month announced non-binary status with a social media post mentioning they/them as preferred pronouns for themselves. Language is shaping conversations around gender inclusivity, helping create a bias-free workplace.
Bengaluru-based software engineer Prasenjit Chaudhuri, 37, credits Cisco for helping him open up about his sexuality to his project head and human resource manager. “As a single gay guy, especially when I’m defaulted as straight, I need to put in an effort to correct the assumption people make about my sexuality. Talking about personal pronouns helps in a big way to clear the air,” he says.
A number of people in the LGBTQ+ community, who do not identify as male or female but are gender fluid, prefer to refer to themselves using the gender-neutral they/them rather than the binary personal pronouns of he/she. And for transpersons, use of a pronoun that does not connect to the gender they identify with can feel like a negation of their identity or personhood.
When Pune’s Reese Dolphy, 25, who identifies as a transman, joined the customer service team of a global firm, his corporate trainer ensured that his name and pronouns were clear to the team. “For a long time, I was in a dilemma about working, knowing I would be misgendered. But my organisation gave me the strength. I would reprimand my colleagues if they referred to me as a female,” says Dolphy.
Corporate India has, for the past few years, been striving to be an equal opportunity employer. Some like Godrej Industries allow employees to select their gender when they join the company. Others like Tata Steel are trying to use more inclusive language—it renamed its Paternity Leave policy, for instance, as the Newborn Parent Leave policy.
In some organisations, human resources policies have evolved too. “Our insurance benefits cover live-in partners regardless of the employee’s marital status or sexual orientation,” says Vieshaka Dutta, director- diversity equity and inclusion, Publicis Sapient, a digital consulting firm.
Other efforts are smaller yet significant. “Our signature template contains a line item for inserting personal pronouns. It’s optional, but we encourage employees to express their individuality through their personal pronouns,” says Vipul Singh, vice-president and head of human resources, ADP India, a payroll processing firm.
When the first-ever India Workplace Equality Index was launched in December 2020, 65 firms participated. Only 13 organisations failed to meet the minimum threshold criteria, while 21 hit the top category.
At GE, gender-neutral restrooms have become a norm across campus. “We have onboarded an LGBT+ focused recruitment consultant as our talent acquisition partner, which helps us be inclusive when it comes to members of the community,” says Neerja Bhardwaj, HR business partner, India Technology, GE.
Earlier masculine pronouns were used when looking for a candidate, says Sharma of Aristocrat. Now the pronouns are gender-neutral. “In boardrooms, people are conscious of their language. Earlier the word was ‘manpower’, now it is ‘headcount’ or ‘resource’,” he says.
Though there is no conclusive data about the LGBTQ+ corporate workforce, around 4.9 lakh people chose “other” gender in the 2011 Census data. After the Supreme Court 2018 judgement, organisations that were fence-sitters, became vocal. This, in turn, allowed employees to bring fluidity of the gender spectrum to the forefront.
“At GE, we have held multiple workshops on the pitfalls of making assumptions on someone’s gender by their names or appearance,” says Bhardwaj.
While transgender activist Kalki Subramaniam lauds the changes progress, she says a lot more needs to be done. “We should not restrict inclusivity to white-collar jobs,” she says. “It’s time awareness moved to blue-collar jobs, government organisations, academia.”
Parul Sharma, a Mumbai-based sales professional, agrees. The 30-year-old recounts the stark difference in workplace biases of global and Indian organisations. “As a queer person, one is expected to work longer hours. Even if you are in a relationship, it is assumed you are available for extra work compared to others,” she says. In her previous company, an Indian payment solutions provider, she was often discriminated against because of her sexuality, she says.
Currently with a global financial research firm, she is voluntarily leading the company’s diversity and inclusivity team in India. “I could clearly see the wide gap that existed between the two workplaces. Here, breaking biases is an ongoing process with multiple workshops. No one can make casual comments about gender fluidity,” she adds.
Even though Cisco’s Chaudhuri is part of the pride committee in his organisation, he has not yet taken his teammates into confidence. “I consciously walk out of conversations when it veers towards relationships. Because putting myself out there and making that effort to say I am gay is not always easy since I have hidden the fact all my life. Change is taking place but it’s a slow process,” he says.
He wants conversations around sexuality to be part of team meetings—a practice recently adopted by Publicis Sapient. “This year, the campaign is called ‘PRIDE Inside’, which calls for affirmative action from all and not just creating awareness,” says Dutta. “We have challenged all leaders and supervisors to have conversations with their teams.”