When Ritushree Panigrahi (33) was trying to make a booking on online travel company MakeMyTrip early last year, she noticed the form offered only two gender options — the male and female boxes. Panigrahi, a corporate lawyer and transwoman tweeted to the company to address the issue and add more options for people of different genders. The tweet garnered some interaction and soon she was contacted by the company to have a discussion on how they could fix the biased process going forward.
Panigrahi’s experience is a story that repeats itself for transgender persons in India, who find it difficult to fill out forms. “This is a very small step in terms of inclusion...but in the eyes of trans and non-binary people, it’s huge,” she comments.
Observing the traction Panigrahi was getting, she was contacted by Pallavi Pareek, founder and CEO at Ungender, an organisation that helps companies build inclusive workplaces. Pareek mentioned that they had tried a similar approach a few years ago to get companies to include more genders on forms but to little success. After teaming up, the #UngenderForms campaign was launched on March 31, recognised as Trans Visibility Day. It identified 100 online platforms in India like Nykaa and Ajio that ask for gender data in binaries and urged them to fix the issue at the earliest. A week after the launch, only two companies have got in touch to acknowledge that they are working on this issue, but have maintained that it would take time to do so.
“It’s high time that not just corporates but every sector considers inclusion as a human right,” Panigrahi remarks. She pointed out that diversity and inclusion programmes need to go beyond being a performative ‘HR or CSR activity and move towards creating more inclusion not just for employees but also for customers.
Pareek observed that sometimes organisations also add ‘Other’ as an option in addition to male and female on their forms. “Who is the ‘other’?” she asks. “If I go to a doctor and I don’t find a gender option for female in a form, how will I feel?” she says, adding that people in the larger segment need to realise the importance of finding one’s gender identity.
Even from a business perspective, she added that having more gender options can help identify consumers better to create customised solutions and dedicated spaces for their needs.
Challenges to achieving inclusion
Panigrahi emphasised that inclusion should not just end with bringing in more ciswomen into the workplace but should also look at members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, neurodiverse people and others from marginalised spaces.
She also advocates for non-discrimination policies that would make the working environment safer for people from minority groups. She feels that sensitisation programmes are necessary to abate stigma and for people to understand the mental trauma associated with issues like being misgendered. “Gender-neutral washrooms are the least that companies can do,” she says.
Pareek is of the opinion that companies need to stop looking at diversity and inclusion programmes such as bias addressal as “3-hour programmes that can help them identify their bias.” The problem is much more deeply rooted and hence, they need to look at it from a long-term perspective to unlearn a whole gamut of problematic behaviours.
She said that a good exercise for leaders to do is to sit with their teams and ask basic questions like, “Who are my people, why have I picked them? On what basis have I picked them?” She said that this helps identify the filter that is used for hiring. Furthermore, it needs to be probed that if a person is hired for a certain reason, are they able to contribute to maximum capacity and express a unique perspective. And more importantly, Pareek pointed out that it’s key to question, “Whoever I’ve hired, are they all like me?” She said that this line of questioning will help find out where you stand as a company on inclusion.
Creating truly inclusive workplaces
Having binary genders on forms may only be the tip of an iceberg and organisations still have a long way to go to address the multitude of issues that plague them. Ditilekha Sharma, a trans masculine researcher and activist shared that the lack of non-discrimination policies and recognition of mental health issues are some challenges that make workplaces non-inclusive.
“Dress codes are often gender-segregated and sexual harassment policies do not account for additional vulnerabilities through an intersectional lens,” he remarks. He also adds that mandatory paperwork where one is expected to submit documents like PAN cards and home address or submission of family details can also be difficult for queer or trans people who may have inconsistencies of name and gender in their documents.
Sharma too agrees that the diversity and inclusion policies implemented by many companies are often tokenistic and end with reservation. “This doesn't take into account that the workplace environment can itself be exclusionary,” he says. He further emphasised that there is a lack of provision which includes sustained conversations with the staff around issues of inclusion.
“Focus on changing the day-to-day experiences of people in organisations,” says Sharma. For this the organisational culture has to change, he emphasised, “Some can be done through policy and infrastructure change, like bathrooms and leave policies. Others have to change through regular sensitisation of the staff, which can be built into the policies as well.”
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)