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Relevance of LGBTQI+ inclusion at the workplace in India

Vessy Tasheva, the founder of Vessy.com approached me while working on a report that she believed would help companies from around the world become more inclusive and diverse.

The 2019 Diversity in the Workplace Report intends to inspire companies to understand, innovate and better serve global customers by recognizing diversity and inclusion as more than trending hashtags.

I had such a wonderful conversation with Vessy about what in my opinion, it meant to empower the LGBTQ+ community in India, what changes can workplaces make to become more inclusive and safe for all.

I wanted to share my conversation (that’s also a part of the larger report) with you. This interview is featured in the Deep Dive section of the report, and discusses the LGBTQ+ friendly initiatives that ThoughtWorks India has launched over the years.

What role did ThoughtWorks India play in the rights of LGBTQI+ people in the country?

ThoughtWorks’ culture is synonymous with an inclusive and equitable workspace. We see ourselves as a purpose-driven, tolerant community that’s socially responsible. We have an improved appreciation for diversity and inclusion. And, our culture is not just lip service and policies, but has evolved from a belief system that’s ingrained in our DNA.

Historically, India is a proud country of diversity of cultures and identities, religions, languages, castes and economic sections. Honestly, we are about as diverse as it gets.

Interestingly, when it comes to gender diversity, Indian mythology does nothing short of celebrating some of the most liberal instances of homosexuality. Temples constructed between the 6th and 14th centuries have explicit depictions of queer couples. It was only much later, in 1862, that Britain’s archaic 19th century Victorian rules led to the introduction of the now-denounced Section 377 - a law that criminalised homosexuality, led to regressive views and non-acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in India.

Advocating for LGBTQIA rights / Photo ThoughtWorks
Advocating for LGBTQIA rights / Photo ThoughtWorks
In ThoughtWorks, the journey of LGBTQ+ support started quite early, when two of our employees requested for a transfer to our US office. The two ThoughtWorkers felt unsafe and unaccepted in India. They were scared to come out of the closet and lead normal lives. We stood by them and granted their request for transfer. In a way, that was our first internal-facing pro LGBTQ+ move.

In January 2014, we published an open letter penned by ThoughtWorks MDs sharing our concerns on Section 377. And, it was in June 2014 that we hired the first transwoman in ThoughtWorks India, Nayana Udupi, who joined our marketing team. This hire marked the external-facing launch of our pro-LGBTQ+ efforts.

We also participated in pride marches, sponsored inclusion initiatives and hosted meet-ups in our offices. Internally, we invested in sensitization and awareness programs across our India offices. We screened movies on gender, sexuality and human rights. Apart from screenings, we leveraged the mediums of interactive presentations and workshops too.

These efforts combined with our consistent presence as a voice in support for the LGBTQ+ community resulted in our 7 India offices employing people who are proud and open, alongside those who choose not to reveal their sexual orientation. It’s been quite a journey for us and today, we’re proactively hiring from the LGBTQ+ community. We believe this is an incredible time in the evolution of true inclusion at the workplace.
 

Was there any backlash to the first open letter that criticized Section 377?

None. While we did seek legal advice before publishing the 2014 open letter on our website, we did not mince words when we expressed our concerns. A country that celebrates diversity and pluralism should protect its minorities. It was important for us to show our solidarity for the LGBTQ+ community.

From a ThoughtWorks perspective, let me tell you why this battle for equal rights is really important to us. Our company is built on the strength of three pillars. One, to run a sustainable business. Two, to champion software excellence and revolutionize IT. Three, to advocate passionately for social and economic justice. The third pillar is a key influencer of our culture and values and sets us apart from our competition. Given that championing diversity and inclusion is a key tenet of the third pillar, we had no choice but to speak up in support of our family, colleagues and friends in the LGBTQ+ community.

When in 2018, the Supreme Court of India’s historical judgement repealed Section 377. This was a life-changing moment for the country’s LGBTQ+ people and their allies. And, we released another open letter celebrating this verdict apart from the happy celebrations that took place across each of our offices!

Advocating for LGBTQIA rights / Photo ThoughtWorks
Advocating for LGBTQIA rights / Photo ThoughtWorks

How did you balance LGBTQI+ employees’ safety while advocating for their human rights?

We have passionately and actively strived to make both ThoughtWorks and the tech industry more reflective of the diverse world we live in. We want to be a community of people with progressive and disruptive views on diversity and inclusion, and to be a role model for other organizations when it comes to diverse and inclusive policies and outlooks.

We are working towards being a bias-free, safe and inclusive workplace for women in technology. We are working towards being an ally to and of the LGBTQ+ community and partnering with organizations that catalyze change. We are working towards increasing the diversity ratio at ThoughtWorks India to provide opportunities for the lesser-represented communities and minorities in IT.

How we achieve that ideal-state is to constantly evaluate and rework our practices and policies to proactively ensure inclusivity across all aspects of our business, including people functions/practices, our hiring process, work culture, leadership development and more. We are experimentative and iterative with our diversity-hiring initiatives, internships, trainings and support. An example of how we have been evolving towards a gender-neutral workspace is a policy of our where same-sex partners are covered under our medical insurance policy.

ThoughtWorks prides itself on transparency of voice and expression. And, this obviously extends to ensuring safety at work. Every employee can get in touch with the leadership team or HR leads or the diversity and inclusion team when they sense a lack of safety either inside or outside the office. We offer transportation options for employees who wish to avail it.

For example, Nayana Udupi’s role in the India Marketing Team requires that she interact with a lot of external vendors. At any point if a vendor displays resistance or hesitation to work with her, we reconsider our business with them. We have always made it clear that Nayana is important to us and she’s as much an employee of ThoughtWorks as anyone else.

But, having said that, Nayana is still not free of discrimination when she travels by herself outside office, either on the road or when using public transportation. Unfortunately, progress of thought takes time, and one takes solace in the fact that we are in a better state of awareness and tolerance than we were 2 years ago.
 

What is Interning with Pride?

ThoughtWorks India’s Interning With Pride initiative is a five-month technical training program that helps recently graduated technologists, who are from the LGBTQ+ community enhance their technical skills through live industry experience. The interns work on live projects and simultaneously build their programming skills with hands-on sessions on object-oriented programming, agile practices and the latest industry trends.

2018 saw four interns participate in the program, and all the interns were offered full time jobs as Application Developers with ThoughtWorks. Today, they are proud advocates of LGBTQ+ inclusion both within and outside of the ThoughtWorks network.

https://www.thoughtworks.com/interning-with-pride
Snapshot of the landing page for the initiative

Credit @StuFFmc

Credit @StuFFmc

Any recommendations to organizations supporting LGBTQI+ employees in more conservative countries?

First, it’s important to sensitize your leadership and employees. They are your diversity and inclusion champions. You could brand and market yourself as an inclusive organization but if your leadership does not reflect that in their day-to-day interactions, it’s a lost cause. With respect to employees, educate and sensitize them. Start early by sharing your core values and diversity and inclusivity objectives with potential employees right at the interview stage. Have conversations about how it makes ethical and business sense to ensure realistic representations of society.

Be a voice of support for the LGBTQ+ community. You have to be seen showing solidarity and support which means you attend LGBTQ inclusion meetups, pride roadshows and be a part of panels and speak at events that further progressive thought. You should be seen and heard, which is also how the larger movement for equality gains attention and subsequent victory.

Finally, you have to walk the talk. If you are out there professing support but don’t have employees or partnerships with the LGBTQ+ community, then it’s fluff. Do your research and hire folks or partner with nonprofits and humanitarian organizations that have a good connect with the community. It’s not as easy to do this and I say this from experience, since the community faces multifarious challenges in India and we need the right expertise and experience to ensure that the inclusivity/inclusive efforts extend across all aspects of the business, be it organizational culture, hiring strategies, people policies, sensitization and awareness programs etc.

ThoughtWorks has partnered with a few Indian organizations like Solidarity Foundation. And, such collaborations have helped me many a time when I have needed advice on how to handle a difficult or sensitive situation.

It might be of interest to you to know that we came to know of Nayana, her ambition to join corporate India and of her interest in marketing because of our relationship with Solidarity Foundation. We recognized her potential and wanted to provide her with the opportunity that could positively impact her life.
 

How do you attract talent from underrepresented groups?

Today, we are recognized by more and more people and groups as an inclusive workplace, which is a reason for LGBTQ+ people getting in touch with us, for instance, through referrals.

What has helped is the fact that we have consciously avoided tokenism, as it doesn’t empower the community at all. It’s something that women have been at the receiving end of, for centuries now. Affirmative action is important but only when coupled with a clear vision and plan for leveling the playing field. It’s very important to empower the under-represented, and place them in positions of decision making. They need to not only see your support but also recognize the scope of their own role and responsibility in positions of power.

Rolling out meaningful initiatives and talking about them also helps. For instance, Nayana travels to our offices in India at regular intervals, to speak at tech-community events. She’s grown into a champion not only for ThoughtWorks, but for the LGBTQ+ community itself. Over the years she has been regularly invited to be a part of panels and speak at noteworthy events about her journey.
 

How do you deal with sexism or homophobia in the workplace?

Disrespectful people do not  belong here, at ThoughtWorks. We are intolerant of intolerance and have a no jerks policy. A non-negotiable part of our culture is always striving to build a ‘safe for all’ organization, with zero tolerance for any type of harassment and discrimination. ThoughtWorks’ MITRA Collective is an affinity group for LGBTQ+ employees and allies. Through this group we organize meet-ups, events, discuss policy changes and partner with nonprofits to promote and drive gender inclusion.

Sensitisation and Awareness Building Sessions in ThoughtWorks office / Photo ThoughtWorks


Sensitisation and Awareness Building Sessions in ThoughtWorks office / Photo ThoughtWorks
Sensitisation and Awareness Building Sessions in ThoughtWorks office / Photo ThoughtWorks

Areas in India, you can play a similar role like the one you had on LGBTQI+ people?

An established fact by many a report is that the percentage of women in tech and leadership is low. Not only in India, but across the world. ThoughtWorks Global is striving to hit the  40% mark when it comes to women in tech by 2020. Each country has been given a goal to reach.

We are working hard to provide women with the opportunity to follow their passions and forge successful careers as technologists.

In a world where most women leave technology after an average of five to six years at work, we are trying to build an efficient, sensitive and intuitive support system that organizations provide in terms of policies and retention strategies.

Vapasi is a #TalkTechToHer initiative from ThoughtWorks India that has been designed to enable experienced women developers who are currently on a career break, and looking to re-enter the world of programming. This initiative is in line with our efforts to find and employ/reinstate the missing 50% (of women) of our society in the tech industry.

Another mis-placed belief is that anyone who wants to be in a technology company needs to hold an engineering degree. But, when we acknowledge India’s historically divisive class system, we will have to also acknowledge that not all have equal access to education and jobs. Not all can afford a college education.

As part of the Software Technology Excellence Program or STEP, ThoughtWorks works with students from Polytechnic Colleges across India, which includes tier three and four cities and rural colleges to hire students for a two-year paid internship program. This opens us the tech community to a diverse pool of talent. And, we all can acknowledge that the brightest minds don't necessarily come from premium engineering colleges alone.

That was a wrap of my conversation with Vessy. To know more about ThoughtWorks’ pro-LGBTQ+ initiatives in other parts of  the world, it might interest you to read the interview with Amy Lynch who heads Diversity and Inclusion for ThoughtWorks, UK. This is also part of the 2019 Diversity in the Workplace Report.

A version of this article appeared in Vessy.com