How corporate India can make inclusion of transgender persons a reality

Corporates have opened their doors to the transgender community. But have they also done the difficult, delicate and dedicated work of actually including them in their workforce?
How corporate India can make inclusion of transgender persons a reality
How corporate India can make inclusion of transgender persons a reality
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Sumangali Balakrishna moved from Andhra Pradesh to Bangalore in 2006 for her higher education; she had enrolled in a three-year diploma course in computer science. She then went on to do another short course in Hardware Networking. “I’d wear men’s clothes to all my classes though I loved wearing saris. I didn’t want to face any discrimination at the institute, so I just compromised,” Sumangali, a transgender woman, tells TNM. “I would look forward to the weekend, where I would hang out with others from the hijra community and was very excited to attend my community’s jathres because I could wear a sari,” she says.

In 2010, after she had finished her courses, she began her job hunt with no real success. “I didn’t feel comfortable, so I didn’t do well in the interview round, though they were impressed by my resume,” she says, “I finally took up a job as a cashier at a fast food outlet, but even here I went for my interview and my job in men’s clothing. After six months, I thought to myself that I like the job but this is not fair. I don’t want to dress like a man anymore.” She quit her job in 2011, and decided that she would just join the hijra community in the city. But she had an education and qualifications, and she really wanted to do something more. She started working in an NGO, “but I never stopped sending out my resume. I’d clear the first round but never go to the interview round, and if I went I didn’t have a good experience. I always felt they looked at me in one way, and then I knew I wasn’t going to get the job. And I knew I was being rejected because I was a transgender woman,” says Sumangali.

Sumangali’s experience is a story that repeats itself for transgender persons in India, who find it difficult to get a job. But there seems to be some positive change in some corporate spaces in India. Observing the panels, talks, and stalls at the recently held Reimagining Inclusion for Social Equity (or RISE), touted as the country’s first LGBTQI+ job fair, one thing seems clear: corporates seem more open to hiring transgender employees, and have even made some changes to make this possible. The event was organised by Pride Circle, a two-year-old platform that acts as an inter-company LGBTQI+ forum for MNCs, and Indian companies across the country. There was a conference with 40 speakers – from ‘out’ individuals to HR managers to activists; a job fair with booths ranging from tech and fin-tech companies to hospitality and customer care firms; and a marketplace that featured entrepreneurs from the LGBTQI+ community, dealing with everything from baking to shoe-making.

The intentions are commendable; however, there is much more work to be done to turn these corporates into actually inclusive spaces, say transgender individuals.

The work that corporates are doing

“As an LGBTQ ally, I want to reimagine a world where equality is a given,” said Lakshmi C, a managing director at Accenture Solutions, at the RISE event. “We have found that inclusivity fosters and guides creativity, and a culture of equality is an innovation multiplier. Studies have shown that LGBTQ individuals are seven times more likely to innovate in a more equal work culture,” she explained.

“In this highly competitive business environment, innovation is the need of the hour to stay ahead. Lakshmi then went on to list out the various steps taken by her company to make themselves a more inclusive workplace. “We have all-gender washrooms on all floors, medical insurance that covers partners irrespective of gender, insurance that covers gender confirmation surgeries, and an inclusive transgender and disability internship,” she said.

Parmesh Shahani, head of the Godrej India Culture Labs spoke about his organisation’s white paper, titled A Manifesto for Trans Inclusion in the Indian Workspace, which maps out the reasons inclusion results in increased innovation and makes business sense. He said that taking such achievable steps as an organisation, which were in corporate jargon called ‘low-hanging fruit’, are easy implementations that could be ticked off by the diversity and inclusivity policies.

‘Need to address our everyday lives first’

Several other companies talked about the efforts that they are putting in to become more inclusive. But what about the underlying issues – the fact that most trans individuals don’t get to complete their education and don’t have degrees on paper? What about the hesitations and hurdles that someone like Sumangali faces in entering mainstream avenues of employment?

Akkai Padmashali, a Bangalore-based transgender activist pointed out to corporates, “Today, we are all celebrating this event taking place at a grand venue like The Lalit Ashok. It is all fun, all colourful, there’s full enjoyment going on. But when I look out into the audience, I want to ask: where are the working class from my community? Where are the uneducated, the dropouts, the sex-workers in the audience? Where are the jobs for these people from my community?”

Akkai suggested that companies might need to step outside of this simple mindset of just promising and providing jobs, but address issues like education, skills-training, housing and commute for individuals from the transgender community as well. “You will need to set up their everyday lives first before all this makes a real impact,” she insisted.

‘Insist on skills, not formal education’

Samyukta Vijayan, a trans-woman entrepreneur and techie, also expresses a similar sentiment. Speaking to TNM, she says, “Firstly with regards to employment, there are two categories within the transgender community. People who are ready to jump into the corporate world, and the people who are economically, socially, and educationally marginalised. Because of my own background, it has been easier for me to reach out to the people from the first group to help them figure out a way to land up with a corporate job.”

Samyukta also says that if the potential for economic growth is driving this move towards hiring from the LGBT community, then it must also remove certain obstacles for them. “Google, Apple and other such companies have dropped the need for a degree in any role. You need to have the skill-set. So see our potential and give us the skill set,” she says.”

“But also, if five trans women join a training programme and at the end of it they still don’t match the needs, you can’t give up. The attitude shouldn’t be, I tried and gave up. No, you must keep at it till you’ve got them to the needed level,” she insists, “We just need one company to begin doing this, and others might follow.”

“This pool might not meet the right standard of qualification because they dropped out in their second year of college and these companies require a degree. There are jobs like customer support providers – which is a corporate job with benefits, and requires a degree. But what do you really need? Good spoken English and basic computer skills. I know a lot of my trans sisters who have the potential but don’t reach this silly qualification requirement of a degree,” she says.

Samyukta goes on to suggest that if companies gave her trans sisters the basic training through an in-house programme that assures them assimilation into the same company’s employee base, then that would show commitment to the cause. “Until corporates take the responsibility and invest their money into training members of the trans community, then their allowing someone else to do the diversity and inclusion part of it, while they sit doing nothing, doesn’t mean much,” she argues.

Need to hold the door

In Sumangali’s case, she kept sending her resume to different companies, and, “By some luck, my resume had landed up with Periferry in Chennai. They told me that they worked for the inclusion of transgender people in the work place and wanted to meet me. I met with them at a coffee-shop and quickly things seemed to fall into place,” she recalls.

In a couple of weeks, Sumangali was told to head out to her first interview. “I had such bad experiences with interviews previously that I was extremely hesitant to go to this one but I felt that for this interview I had the backing of the Periferry organisation, so I could just go for it,” she explains.

Since that interview in April 2018, Sumangali has been the administrator of The Bohemian House, a city-based co-working hub and event venue. “The interview experience itself was warm, I didn’t feel discrimination but rather genuine interest from the Shalini and Shashikala [Prasad, the co-founders of the space], like they wanted to get to know me. I even felt confident and told them, if I get the training I can do any job,” she remembers proudly. A couple of days later, Sumangali was invited back to the space and given an appointment letter, a little gift and chocolates. “I just cried off,” she says.

Jobs must have opportunities for growth

Everyone welcomes the growing chances to enter the mainstream job market but Sumangali adds that these jobs shouldn’t be dead-end positions for transgender employees at this workplace. “There should be opportunities for growth. We shouldn’t be at the same job, doing the same thing forever. We need to feel good that we are growing, that we are being trusted with more responsibilities. We should get assessed and given regular raises,” she explains. “Just giving a job isn’t enough. The job must translate to change in lifestyle, in being able to live a life of dignity,” she adds, “If you give us a chance, we will give you our loyalty.”

While the corporate sphere might have taken a step in the right direction, Sumangali hopes that these opportunities would present themselves at the government agencies too. “Imagine if every department in the government had to have one percent of transgender employees? How much dignity it would give my community? Then, we will not need corporations to lower the bar for us, we’ll walk in happily,” Sumangali smiles.

Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer.

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