Job fairs for the LGBTQ+: Making the Indian workplace more inclusive

Rushati Mukherjee | Updated on March 13, 2020

Line up for a future: More than 1,000 job seekers and 20 companies attended an LGBTQ+ employment fair held at Delhi’s The LaLiT last month   -  IMAGE COURTESY: THE LaLiT

Indian law has done its bit by decriminalising homosexuality. Now, with job fairs and other measures, Indian employers are being persuaded to open their doors to the LGBTQ+ community

Ajit (36) is an anxious man. His hands constantly twitch and he has dark circles under his eyes. He won’t tell me his last name, but he does disclose the fact that he is from Lucknow, and has come to Delhi in search of employment. But Ajit is not just another job-seeker looking for a better life.

“I survived a suicide attempt recently,” he says. “I was so tired of living a lie: Of not telling anyone — friends, family and colleagues — who I really am, because I’m afraid that they won’t accept me.”

Ajit is gay, a fact that he disclosed to his wife only recently. “She always knew that something was wrong. I could never be with her as a husband should be with his partner,” he says. It was the same story at work. Ajit couldn’t bring himself to tell his workplace friends about his sexuality.

Ajit’s story is disturbing, but not unusual in India. Members of the LGBTQ+ community often say they find themselves in similar situations. At work, an individual who chooses to come out or is outed against their wishes, risks not only harassment and ostracism but also loss of livelihood.

But increasingly organisations are lending a helping hand to Ajit and other members of the community. He was among many present at a job fair organised by Pride Circle, a consultancy that encourages companies to be equal-opportunity hirers. Called RISE — Reimagining Inclusion for Social Equity — the job fair for LGBTQ+ people was held at The LaLiT, New Delhi, on February 22.

Also present at the fair were Anaika and Bonita, transwomen whose identities render them visible and therefore vulnerable. Bonita is from Rajasthan; she had taken part in a pageant called Ms Trans Queen India in 2019 and had placed third. She is out and proud, and so is Anaika — and they both have stories to tell about the harassment they have faced at work.

“People were not able to associate with me,” Anaika, who works in digital marketing, says. “They were polite, but not friendly. And that was the best-case scenario.” The uneasy environment compelled her to resign from her post and look for openings in a place where she could be herself. But more often than not, it was hard to even get a foot in the door. “I don’t put a picture of myself on my CV, and when I do get a call for an interview, I can see the interviewers’ face changing the minute I step in.” Anaika attended Q-rious, another job fair in Delhi in November last year — organised by Equiv, an HR/tech startup that has a job portal for women, people with disabilities, army veterans and the LGBTQ+ community.

Make room, please: The Supreme Court scrapped the archaic Section 377 in September 2018 but the Indian workplace is still an uncomfortable space for sexual minorities   -  THE HINDU/ SUPREET SAPKAL


“Our founder, Naren Krishna, wanted to hold a job fair exclusively for the community after the final overturning of Section 377 [in 2018],” Ankita Mehra, director of events and community at Equiv, says. “In January 2019, I started travelling across the country to speak to people from the community. We discovered that a lot of people are sceptical about getting jobs and then staying in them, and we knew we had to focus on the culture of the companies first,” she adds.

Duo at work: Ramkrishna Sinha (above) and Srini Ramaswamy (below), founders of Pride Circle, a consultancy that helps queer people find employment   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


Pride Circle, meanwhile, came into being after co-founders Ramkrishna Sinha and Srini Ramaswamy met at a conference in 2011. “This was before the re-criminalisation of Section 377 (a section in the Indian Penal Code that made ‘unnatural sex’ a criminal offence) — a different era,” Srini says. The two realised that there was not much data available on inclusivity in workspaces in India, and they had to physically call on companies to find out what their practices in India, and globally, are.

That’s when they had the idea of creating an accessible and safe platform on which people could share information about the companies that have the most inclusive hiring practices. They also wanted to build a database of these companies and put them in touch with their potential talent pool. “Back then, no one was sharing openly what they do. We wanted to give individuals a place to lean on each other during hard times, as a community,” says Srini. The first edition of RISE took place in Bengaluru last year, and saw the participation of more than 40 companies.

Data security is a major concern for both the companies. Both have dedicated teams that consult individually with job seekers before sending on their information to recruiters. This particular activity takes place all year round, and not just before the fairs.

The fairs are not similar in structure. Q-rious is invite-only; interested people have to register themselves on the website and those considered to be the most promising, according to the profiles available, are called back. The organisers arrange for their travel, accommodation and meals for the duration of the fair, given that some people may not be able to attend otherwise.

The organisation chose to start in Delhi, bringing in queer people from across North India. The registration process started in July 2019 with a team of recruiters going through CVs to shortlist the most promising ones for the companies that were going to be there.

RISE, attended by 1,200 job seekers and 20 companies, was partly ticketed: The fair and the workshops were free, but the conference, which had panel discussions with activists, human resources officials, queer people and their parents, was ticketed, at around ₹8,000 per person.

One of the delegates at the conference was human rights lawyer and drag performer Aishwarya Ayushmaan, who spoke about his dual identity. His on-stage name — “a celebration and an expression of the years of repressed femininity in me,” he explains — is Lush Monsoon. “Only a few of my colleagues know about my drag identity, and others... well, they don’t,” he says, with a laugh. He anticipates hostility, or at least non-acceptance if he comes out fully, and his greatest fear is to not be taken seriously as a lawyer because of his drag identity.

People from the community want practical, actionable steps to be taken by employers to prevent hostile workplace environments. UK-based LGBTQ+ charity, Stonewall, has designed the perfect tool to help them: A workplace equality index.

“When we started working with employers about 15 years ago, we saw a great response from the LGBTQ+ community both in the UK and across the world,” Leanne MacMillan, director of global programmes at Stonewall, says. “Employers can transform messages, reach out to communities in places where the government may not be doing what it should be doing,” she says.

They can, for instance, provide leadership and create safe spaces for people. “We tell them, this is what we’ve learnt, this is our data, please feel free to use it and come up with the particular solution that works here. We try to guide them to be inclusive employers in challenging environments, where queer identities may be criminalised, or there are no laws protecting them, or there are problematic laws, ” MacMillan, who interacted with candidates at RISE, explains.

She describes the index as an “accountability tool”. Companies are scored on nine different criteria, such as policies and benefits, staff engagement, and community engagement and understanding local context, and the higher they score, the more inclusive the workplace.

On Stonewall’s website, one can find two templates of the index: One made specifically for the UK, and the other, a global template that they are working on with partners in multiple countries to modify for the particular needs of every local community. In India, they have teamed up with Pride Circle and the Keshav Suri Foundation to create the index, bring it to the local queer community, and ensure that employers here are aware of it and following it.


Yet another way to make a workplace inclusive is to make sure there are people from the community in prominent roles. At consultancy firm KPMG, it’s Zainab Patel, the director of diversity and inclusion, who fulfils this role. “We have gender-neutral washrooms, inclusive insurance, a non-discriminatory policy, and we also have an internal network of LGBTQ+ people and allies,” she says. “Importantly, we also have out members on our team.”

As a policy analyst who is also a transperson, Patel ensures that KPMG is understanding of those in the community who come from a marginalised background and may not have had access to specialised training or official qualifications. “The company came to the job fair to look at the fresh talent pools despite this, and there are measures in place to ensure that those who are hired will be trained as needed,” she says.

Accenture was another company present in both the job fairs and the conference at RISE. “We are focused on creating a safe and open environment for our LGBTQ+ workforce, because we believe that a culture of equality, where people bring their authentic selves to work every day, drives innovation,” says Lakshmi C, managing director and lead for human resources of Accenture in India.

One of the company’s flagship efforts is a six-month internship programme specifically for transgender candidates. Accenture also provides medical cover for gender reassignment surgery, mental health consultation for gender dysphoria and a mentorship and counselling programme for people on the journey of transition.

“Section 377 may have been overturned, and the Transgender Persons’ (Protection of rights) Act may have been passed, but the question is, what now,” gay rights activist Keshav Suri, executive director of the LaLiT Hospitality Group, says. “There’s still a need for empowerment, acceptance, and practical things such as housing, medical aid and education.”

A bright example of the inclusive hiring practices of The LaLiT, which was present as employers at both the fairs, is F&B associate Mohul Sharma, who was hired more than 18 months ago.

A transman, this is Sharma’s first job after his transition started. “Initially, I could not find a job anywhere due to the incongruence in my legal identity and my social identity,” he says. “They did not even know what the term ‘transman’ meant.” The biggest change that Mohul noticed at The LaLiT was that the people were aware of different identities, and the usual awkward questions and suspicions didn’t come his way.

The organisers of both the fairs plan on holding them in different locations in the coming months. Q-rious is scheduled to be held in Mumbai in April, while Pride Circle wants to hold RISE every few months in different cities during hiring cycles. The hope is that through their activities, they can not only bring together a fresh talent pool for companies to hire from but create healthy, sustainable workplace environments for members of the community to work in safely, as themselves.

Ajit, meanwhile, has been interviewed by both KPMG and Accenture. If all goes well, he may one day soon hold a post in an organisation where he will never be harassed for his sexual orientation.

Rushati Mukherjee is a journalist and blogger currently based in Delhi

Published on March 12, 2020

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