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Sensitizing to break stereotypes

  • The workplace can be a tough area to manoeuvre and is even more difficult for differently-abled people
  • While company policies may always boast of an inclusive work environment, it is usually the employees who make or break the feeling of acceptance for some

Nayna Udupi (right) says Gautam Hanumanthappa has been a friend and mentor to her.
Nayna Udupi (right) says Gautam Hanumanthappa has been a friend and mentor to her.

Walking into a new office always comes with some apprehension. It was doubly so for Nayna Udupi, marketing associate, ThoughtWorks India. Besides this being her first corporate stint, Udupi also was nervous about how she would be accepted, considering she’s a transgender, who identifies herself as a woman.

Meanwhile, marketing manager Gautam Hanumanthappa was looking forward to welcoming the company’s first transgender employee. Having been part of the recruitment process and knowing a lot of people within the organization, Hanumanthappa was given the task of being Udupi’s buddy, a common aspect of the onboarding initiatives today.

While he went through the sensitization workshop the Bengaluru-based company organized for all its employees a few weeks before Udupi’s joining, what really helped was them sharing a common mother tongue, Kannada, and a mutual love for Mangaluru. “We started talking and she shared her life journey, struggles, skill sets and that helped us connect well together," recalls Hanumanthappa.

He initially gave Udupi a chance to pursue her passion for user design by letting her work with the design team. “However, there were people, who were more experienced and better than me. I realized I wasn’t up to the mark. That’s when Gautam suggested I look at something else," says Udupi.

Realizing she was good at interacting with vendor, procurements, keeping tab of what the inventory is and things like that which is a day to day work for the marketing team. The team started routing some of these tasks to her. “We trained and handheld her through the work, monitored her but she picked it up fast," says Hanumanthappa proudly.

The challenges

Since everyone in the organisation had gone through the LGBTQ+ sensitization training, Udupi didn’t find herself facing any subconscious or outward bias from her co-workers. In fact, Udupi has become a sort of a role model in various internal and external diversity initiatives. Expecting the same openness from external stakeholders like vendors, however, would have been a tall order.

“Since Nayna has to interact with a lot of vendors, I was picky about them. I personally called up the ones, who I felt wouldn’t have a problem working with a transgender person. I told them that there was no difference between her and me and the business will run as usual. Most vendors were accommodative," he says. What about those who were reluctant? Udupi says she got support from the company to stop working with those vendors.

Such show of support, Udupi says, helped her immensely in building her confidence. It may also be the reason she has been with the organisation for five years. “It is not easy for a person like me to get into a white-collar IT job. I don’t think I would have managed in any other organisation without the support and hand holding I got here," she says.

Another thing Hanumanthappa is conscious of is reiterating the point that Udupi shouldn’t pity herself and shouldn’t allow others to pity her. Sometimes, Udupi also gets into a zone where she feels she’s being targeted or is facing hurdles because she’s a transgender. “I then give her a pep talk and course correct by telling her that she’s not being targeted.... I want to build her confidence, and the last thing I want to do is have a pity-filled interaction," he says.

Hanumanthappa admits that before he met Udupi and went through the sensitization course, his perception of transgender was stereotypical. “The only place I had met or interacted with a transgender was at a traffic signal. And it wasn’t a great experience," he says. So, he understands when vendors are reluctant to interact with Udupi because “they have no other reference". “I was lucky that I had the opportunity to work with her," he says.

Benefits of inclusion

Working closely with Udupi has also helped Hanumanthappa put his problems and issues in perspective. “Considering the amount of hardship and discrimination she has faced, I realize my problems are nothing. And the compassion arises right from there," he says.

Agreeing with him, Tina Vinod, diversity and inclusion lead at ThoughtWorks India, says the company has been serious about its efforts in nurturing an inclusive culture and are even looking at creating referral program to attract LGBTQ+ talent. “We believe it’s important to be reflective of the world we live in," says Vinod.

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