New Delhi: Across the globe, the advocacy for workplace inclusiveness has continued to expand in the last two decades. As the push for a more inclusive, diverse, and tolerant world builds momentum, there has also been a series of conversations around the need to create inclusive workplaces in organisations.
This goes beyond merely creating a level-playing field or being intentional about diversity in recruitment; it entails the need for employers to have a clear and comprehensive in-house policy that guides the way LGBTQIA employees are supported to work and grow.
In India, a lot has changed in the last 15 years with regard to diversity and legal provisions for LGBTQIA. Article 15(1) of the Indian constitution prohibits the discrimination of any person on the basis of sex, among other things. However, this was seen as only covering the stereotypical binary genders until 2014, and later in 2018, when two Supreme Court pronouncements cleared the air. In 2014, the court in National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India interpreted that portion of the constitution to reflect discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Such legal rulings in the nation have reemphasised, over the years, that discriminating against a person because of their non-conformity to what are stereotypical generalisations of so-called binary genders is a violation of the fundamental right of that person, as provided for in the constitution.
This constitutional provision and subsequent rulings have become the bedrock on which LGBTQIA rights stand in India. However, while this is largely upheld within the public space, the private sector is still replete with organisations that do not pay attention to workplace inclusiveness.
LGBTQIA, Corporate India, and Workplace Inclusiveness
According to a 2020 Georgetown Public Policy Review Paper, there's still a lot of harassment and exclusion faced by LGBTQIA Indians. The paper further explains that the laws in India are still largely dominated by colonial prejudice which supports socioeconomic disparities, discrimination, and harassment.
These often come in the form of homophobic jokes, insensitive casual banters, insults regarding their sexuality, making degrading remarks about sexual orientation, or even total isolation of the individual.
The story is better than it was 10 years ago, and it's especially driven by the law and a changing perception among Indians. One renowned victory for the LGBTQIA community in India was the abolishment of a colonial-era law in 2018 which criminalised same-sex relations in the country. Since then, many companies have joined the train, many of them implementing policies that support the recruitment, protection, and retention of LGBTQIA people. In many cases, people who change their names and sex in official documents may also find it extremely difficult to find work.
Beyond this, it has to do with changing the work culture, sensitising other employees on access and use of official toilets, and so on.
What can be done?
First and foremost, the government needs to take the lead in India. Specific legislations need to be enacted to protect vulnerable groups like the LGBTQIA community from the current harsh realities. It's about creating an inclusive environment, guided by an inclusive policy, using the right language, and implementing the right penalty for other employees who act discriminatorily. Things as little as changing the word "spouse" to "partner" in official forms and benefits policies, to as huge as having separate "powder rooms" for non-binary employees can go a long way.
Inscriptions on walls that are specific to binary genders, documents that carry only "Male" or "Female" options, and other things would have to change. But beyond all these, the biggest change that needs to happen is attitudinal. Employers and existing employees must become more aware. It is important that everyone is on board and understands the non-discrimination policy. On the part of the government, the existing laws on non-discrimination must be expanded beyond the public sphere to also sweep through the private sector.
The last part of the provision of Article 16 says "...under the state", which means only those in the public sector are protected. The government must, therefore, introduce specific laws to guide the private sector and ensure that employers adhere to regulations that support human rights, dignity, diversity, and freedom of identity.
It is safe to say that the law has some loopholes that need to be plugged in. But while we await the promulgation of the legal framework, companies must, on their own, begin to make those changes that are necessary for workplace inclusiveness to thrive.