I am a technologist, a manager of a diverse team at one of the world’s largest banks, a transman, a family guy, a diversity and inclusion (D&I) advocate, a humanitarian, and if I find time, a day dreamer. Today, I confidently embrace all my identities equally, but it was not always this easy.
When I entered the workforce in the late 1990s, the mention of “LGBTQ+” was a big taboo in society. It was just not possible to publicly embrace my identity, so I tried to navigate that world as a “woman”. It was a time when the laws were also not very supportive. The workplace was no exception. If you were “different” in any way, and did not conform to hetero-normative behaviour, the chances of being sidelined were real. It would manifest in many ways, including not being put in client-facing roles or having your contributions go unrewarded.
This, however, changed in the mid-2000s when I moved to the US from India to work with an American bank. For the first time I could express myself truly without much blowback. People were far more aware of the spectrum in which I could exist. While I had come out informally to a supportive manager on a client project in the UK earlier, I was now able to embrace my identity for the first time publicly. It was so liberating.
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Along with enjoying my work as a technologist, I could bring my whole self to the workplace.
I returned to India about nine years ago and have been primarily working with global banks. Social acceptance had gone up by then, but legal and professional acceptance was still evolving. So, most people would only view me through a binary lens, although I had come out and my gender expression was as per my identity. It was a struggle to move into a leadership role till I found strong mentors who were also allies and were focused on skills and potential.
The push for inclusion and equity has to come from the top and stay consistent through all levels. Else, even the best human resource (HR) policies will stay on paper. A workplace I was part of had instituted inclusion policies, but when it came down to the ground, biases against non-binary identities continued to hamper my growth. It takes work to translate polices on paper to actual changes in employee behaviour and culture.
I am often invited to closed-door sessions to speak about my journey to senior managers to spread sensitisation and awareness. I see many of them become allies for change. This is important as they are the ones usually on the front lines of change.
I have managed teams ranging from 150 to three. I am a people person, so I maintain one-on-one relationships with each of my team members. I coach and I mentor, both professionally and personally. My life experiences have led me to develop a high level of EQ, so I am able to sense when somebody is uncomfortable with or confused about my identity. In such cases I open a dialogue: Are you okay, is there anything you want to discuss? I tell them that I am a transman and I expect that we can work together professionally.
In my first role as a manager in India, there were some team members who were initially uncomfortable going beyond a binary view. But with engagement and inclusion, they stopped viewing me through the lens of my identity alone. I keep the lines of communication open and professional, so people can interact with me based on my experience and skills. In some cases where they have not been able to get past their issues, we respectfully parted ways.
Many companies now have strong anti-discriminatory policies and culture, besides inclusive hiring programmes. The focus, however, has to shift beyond hiring to upskilling and retention. Once you have hired people, then the mechanisms for upskilling have to be put in place, if needed. Finally, a 360-degree feedback helps mitigate bias of any kind in evaluations by managers.
Early in my career I was in a situation where client appreciation for the quality of my work and dedication as a programmer did not make its way into my appraisal, and I received less than positive manager feedback. Rounded feedback from all quarters would have helped counter any bias, unconscious or otherwise.
The road ahead
The fact that we just celebrated Pride month so widely, the fact that I am talking to you about my experiences, that there are focused hiring programmes for diverse communities—all those are very hopeful signs. But we still have a lot of work to do.
Ketty Avashia (he/him) is vice-president and platform integration lead in India for Wells Fargo.
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