From being called names to lack of basic infrastructure like restrooms, there is a lot that transgender people at work have faced. Here are their experiences to help us become better allies at work.
“After a long fight, I got a job with a telecom giant. But they asked me not to disclose my identity. Only HR knew. I was so uncomfortable. I was unable to communicate with my team and others openly. And I felt bad. After 3 months, I fell into depression. So, I had to quit the job that I got after a lot of struggle.” This is Sakthi Sri Maya’s story, a transwoman and co-founder of Intersex Human Rights of India. This is also the story of possibly many other transgender people who want to join and work with companies that you and I find very easy to approach.
We all understand that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is fundamental in India Inc today. However, even though inclusion is in the credo for most large organizations, we find the narrative is around a few people employed from the LGBTQ community, but continues to exclude trans persons. Only a few companies are openly recruiting transgender people.
And it’s not that trans persons don’t exist in organizations. As Neelam Jain, Founder and CEO, PeriFerry, an organization that helps members from the LGBTQIA+ community to find placements, says, “There is a decent population of at least 6-10% in any company that comprises of LGBTQ individuals. And trans people are also a part of that. So, they exist but they’re afraid to come out and identify themselves as trans.”
Sahil, a transman who has worked with multiple organizations in India Inc and now conducts sensitization workshops shares, “Wherever I have worked, I could not tell anyone about my identity. I had heard employees’ opinions on girls and on guys. So, I didn’t know what would happen if I told them I was inclined to be a man and not a woman. When I worked with a company for online medicines, I thought I should come out with my identity. But one day, I heard the team making fun of some guy who had come for an interview. Like he was kind of feminine. So, that stopped me.”
This is only a glimpse of the reality. Although it’s extremely liberating to be out, they just can’t be.
So, to understand what India Inc could do to make the transgender community an integral part of the mainstream, we gathered perspectives from D&I and business leaders from organizations and trans persons who are currently or have been formerly employed in the corporate setup. Here’s what they have to say about how to increase trans-inclusion at workplace:
Neelam Jain makes a case, “Literally call out for hiring trans people. This is a part of the vertical that corporates call change management. When there are more people from the trans community in the organization, they will feel – ‘okay, there are more people like me.’ No one should feel like they’re alone. No one wants to be the odd one out in a few thousand people to come out and wave a flag. And for everyone else, that visual representation is so important.”
On a similar note, Anjali Raghuvanshi, Chief People Officer at Randstad India states, “We have to fix goals around hiring transgender persons apart from crafting inclusive policies and benefits.”
As you recruit more and more transgender persons, simultaneously drive meaningful awareness. Both of these efforts go hand-in-hand. Neelam Jain states emphatically, “Such awareness and sensitization must be driven by people from the community so that people feel a lot safer. If they feel colleagues are still somewhere biased, they still make those jokes, trans people will keep switching jobs or even quit their careers.”
And that’s what happened with Maya. “Most of the people in companies do not think about my talent. They only see me as a…. Sorry to mention this word. They used to ask very uncomfortable questions that they should not ask a trans person. ‘Why does your hair look like this?’ ‘Why are you dressing up like this?’ ‘Your certificates are in the name of a male but why are you dressing as a female?’ In one company, when I said I am an intersex person, I got demoted immediately. So, I quit.”
Anjali Raghuvanshi hence opines, “It’s most important to sensitize existing employees towards the challenges that transgender community face so that they comprehend the issues better and can act as more enabled allies. This would need to be complemented by awareness campaigns, workshops, and discussion forums where the average cisgender employee can ask well-intended questions.”
And sensitization is required at every level. As Maya affirms, “Being inclusive means you explain everything to us and everyone else. Don’t focus only on a certain set of people. Talk to everyone from the ground level. That will make us all feel equal and normal.”
Anjali Raghuvanshi pertinently suggests, “Offer a solid anti-discrimination policy for the transgender community. It should be mobilized by Government agencies and with legislative support. Right now, transgender and cisgender anti-harassment laws are different, and that promotes inequality at the foundation.”
Sahil appeals, “Don’t treat us specially. It’s not needed. We should be treated in the organization just like everyone else.”
For trans persons, office infrastructure means something as basic as having gender-neutral restrooms.
Sahil narrates that the only reason he worked in a medical clinic was it had a common washroom. He talks about a time when he interviewed with a big company that mentioned that they were inclusive. However, as he sat through the gruelling interview process for almost 8 hours that consisted of 4-5 rounds, he realized that the organization did not have a gender-neutral restroom. Since he was dressed as a man, he could not go to the women’s restroom. The option of men’s restroom was not favourable as the fixtures in the restroom are open and in a common area which would have made him feel uncomfortable. It is at this time that he decided that he would turn down the offer even if he got the job.
Providing closed enclosures in men’s washrooms or constructing gender neutral washrooms is a small step toward making trans men feel comfortable at work.
Anjali Raghuvanshi states, “Offer infrastructural support for transgender people at the workplace. And very importantly, offer equitable and fair health and insurance benefits.”
Unfortunately, fair insurance benefits for trans persons are absent even at well-known brands. Maya shares her ordeal. “While I worked at an MNC, I fell sick and due to complications, I had to go for a surgery. So, I applied for insurance. And then the struggle began. After forty days of follow ups on what I had to submit to claim insurance, my manager pointed to HR. HR pointed to another person. But nothing. They didn’t even tell me about the process. There was even a D&I WhatsApp group in the company. When I texted there, no one knew about the insurance policy for trans employees. Not even the D&I leader.”
Neeraj Jain, Country Director India at PATH shares, “At PATH, we have organised People Resource Groups as voluntary, employee-led groups that focus on a particular demographic and element of DEI. As a result, the employees from diverse communities have a safe network and platform to raise their voices, to be heard, and share perspectives. This also opens a channel of direct communication with leadership.”
Anjali Raghuvanshi similarly professes that employee/ business resource groups and ally networks are very important for meaningful dialogues and strong support.
Maya shares a heart-warming story of her success at one of her workplaces. “I got a job as a store manager in a boutique. My mentor at the workplace was awesome. Now I had joined in a male attire only. But, after a few weeks, she asked me ‘Are you feeling comfortable?’ ‘How do you feel?’ I asked her for female clothes. So she took me to a shop and we bought some dresses and sandals. And on Saturday I went to the boutique in female attire. My colleagues just stared at me and no one spoke with me. That evening she came to the office and asked, ‘Hey why are you so dull. What happened to you?’ I said no one was talking to me and I was feeling very awkward. She said, ‘No. Please don’t repress yourself. You came till Friday in male attire and then suddenly on Saturday you came in female attire, they will stare at you. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Just give one or two days. They will understand you. Even I will explain it to them.’ And she did it! And soon people started talking to me!”
That’s the impact of having a mentor on the ground.
Sahil suggests, “Companies should have someone we can reach out to, already in place at the time of onboarding. They should say expressly, “You can talk to XYZ if there is any bullying.”
Neelam Jain shares an impactful anecdote. “We were launching a training initiative for 20 trans people in collaboration with an MNC retail giant. For a change, one of their keynote speakers wasn’t the head of D&I or HR. It was the head of the Technology Division. We asked him why he chose to inaugurate a trans training program? He said, ‘Diversity is at the heart of innovation. So, if I don’t represent a trans inclusion initiative, then I’m sending a message that technology and innovation have nothing to do with diversity and inclusion, which is not true.’ Isn’t that wow! Someone with 30 years of experience saying that – it drives such a big message to all employees.”
Yes, anything and everything you do, DEI is at the core of it. Even if you think it’s not related, it’s very much related
Neelam Jain always tells leadership in organizations, “It’s okay. You can only do so much sometimes especially when we’re talking about a really large organization. The fault is not always on the community or not always from the company. Sometimes things take their own time. We’re dealing with human emotions at the end of the day. And if X company today is known as the champion of LGBT inclusion, they wouldn’t have been in the same space 10 years ago. They would have had many failed recruitments and learned from it.”
Even Neeraj Jain says candidly, “We know this is an ongoing journey.”
So, keep going. Don’t make that one failure as your reason to stop. Make all the adjustments and take all the precautions. But keep at it! Genuinely. Continuously. Sensitively.
Image is a still from the movie Transfinite
I am a corporate communications consultant, columnist, and former lawyer. I help organisations speak to
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