Nayana Udupi, marketing associate at global technology consulting company Thoughtworks, is one of the few transwomen who have made a successful corporate career. However, the journey has been everything but easy.
After completing her transformation journey from biological male to a transwoman, Nayana enrolled in evening classes in Bengaluru to learn computer languages. Lacking an income, she took up sex work to finance her studies. A classmate helped her out with a freelance job - which didn’t last long because the moment he found out that she was a transgender, he decided that she was not fit for work.
Nayana then met people from an LGBT rights group and NGO which provides support to sex workers and sexual minorities with fellowships and grants. “Due to my computer skills, Solidarity Foundation put me in a corporate training programme. They incidentally also happened to hear of an opening at Thoughtworks. I went for the interview and the rest is history,” she recalls.
While securing a good professional opportunity was tricky because of her lack of English fluency, dated design skills and no prior corporate experience, Nayana says she got significant support from Thoughtworks, who pitched in with additional training and mentors.
"I have not let the mismatch between my love for design and my outmoded skills bring me down. Today, I handle all the administration work needed for one of the key functions in Thoughtworks India,” she says.
The transgender community has been getting a good support from the corporate world in the recent past, but full inclusion is still far-off. Somewhere, organisations mistake inclusion with diversity hiring and there is a need to re-examine how their efforts to create trans-inclusive workplaces are not just tokenism.
Neelam Jain, founder and CEO at PeriFerry, an Indian impact enterprise that creates employment and upskilling opportunities for transgender persons, says the community has been getting support in the corporate world - but only from a few companies.
“I don't see a collective effort coming yet. Only a miniscule percentage of corporates in the country today are pouring in a lot of money or doing work for the transgender community. We still don't get to see much effort from thousands of other corporates,” she adds.
Neelam says that LGBTQ inclusion/awareness has picked up some pace only since last year.
“People are now beginning to understand the community and so the organisations are now in ‘We want to be aware, we want to learn’ kind of a phase , which is great and required as well, but there is very little process change happening unanimously across organisations... the companies that are doing the work are doing it exceedingly well, but those who haven't begun or who just began, is a bigger population,” she says.
Basic/major challenges transgender persons face in workplaces
The transgender community is a very wide spectrum of people from varying socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Hence, just viewing it with one lens itself can be a huge problem.
“One of the biggest challenges that we've seen is sometimes organisations just think that if a trans person is coming in, they're not going to be educated, qualified, and then they treat them with that lens, due to which their career and success become stagnant. It's important to understand that each person comes with differing experience - many may need a lot of hand-holding/support but then there are also trans people who are in leadership positions," says Neelam.
Some other challenges that trans people may face is “pseudo inclusion” - or inclusion at a very superficial level. “Everything seems okay, but the feeling of belongingness is missing. There are so many more challenges but the biggest one is definitely the whole gap that a lot of them face in accelerating their careers,” Neelam adds.
Echoing the sentiment, Srini Ramaswamy, co-founder of LGBT+ diversity and inclusion organisation Pride Circle & Pride Circle Foundation, shared that there is a skill gap among members of the transgender community due to denied educational opportunities and employment barriers.
“It is important for companies to affirmatively invest in skilling and training trans talent and build the talent pipeline. Inclusion takes commitment and going the extra mile, companies should leverage all resources available to this goal, and in this instance, CSR funds must be utilized for skill-building of the trans community for employment readiness,” Srini added.
Making workplace truly inclusive for transgender persons
Whether it is language, terminology, basic policies, dress codes or washroom facilities, making inclusion a part of organisational process and policies is important.
Trans inclusion is not for just one level, but should be felt throughout the organisation, just like how we aim all women to be integrated into the organisation at all levels, Neelam says, noting we should speak about the trans community in the same way we speak about lack of women in top management.
“Companies should not just look at it from an internal gamut, but from an external perspective.. on how big the problem is. There is also a huge opportunity for organisations to really become industry leaders in this space by contributing and upskilling of community members by contributing and helping transgender people become entrepreneurs, by creating safe homes and spaces for members of the community. ANZ contributed to creating 'Trans Inn' - one of its kind safe home and livelihood centre for trans community with PeriFerry in 2021. There's so much work that needs to be done in this space, however, there is very little any corporate social responsibility focus...” she adds.
Nayana says it’s critical to assimilate diversity, equity and inclusion thinking into companies’ practices, daily rituals, interactions, and engineering practices (in case of tech teams). “The reality is our workplace is an extension of our lives. We build our connections, experiences, learnings, failures, form relationships and so much more,” she says.
She notes they have an unconscious bias training programme called ‘The Being Inclusive Workshop’ that challenges unconscious biases. "These sessions feature stories and scenarios that are specific to our workplace and are shared by leaders to showcase some biases that we have experienced and seen in our workplace...”
Nayana also says that organisations should walk the talk by making the workplace truly safe and inclusive and rolling out comprehensive anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
Sharing a few ways in which Thoughtworks supports its transgender and gender diverse employees, Tina Vinod, its global head of diversity, equity and inclusion, says: “We recognise that gender expression is a significant element of gender affirmation. The company supports employees in presenting themselves consistent with their gender identity, including those who identify as non-binary.
"Employees are protected from harassment and discrimination through policies like Thoughtworks Code of Conduct or our Non-Harassment and Discrimination Guidelines among other such policies and Thoughtworkers can avail support through the company’s gender affirmation/transition policy as well.”
It is very unlikely that an organisation will become inclusive if the hiring process isn’t inclusive, and companies should be mindful of this when drafting and posting job descriptions. In this regard,Nayana says there should be emphasis on efforts to make the workplace more inclusive and utilising gender-neutral language in all circumstances, as well as on workplace Infrastructure for LGBTQIA+ employees.
For companies focused on creating a truly inclusive workplace culture, it’s no longer about purpose but also recognising the valuable experiences and contributions trans-community bring to the business.
Lakshmi C, managing director, lead - human resources, Accenture in India says the company takes “an intentional approach to equality” and has been deliberate about how they attract, hire, enable and grow LGBT+ people.
“To attract the right talent from this segment, we leverage strategic external partnerships, Pride employment fairs and employee referrals. We also build skills wherever there is a gap. For example, we have a six-month long inclusive internship programme to develop a skilled talent pool of transgender candidates."
Lakshmi says they conduct regular sensitisation sessions "to help all our people understand the nuances of gender expression and identity". Creation of a vibrant ally network for LGBT+ people, and customised training and mentoring programmes on LGBT+ inclusion for our allies enable them to be more informed and be vocal evangelists for the community, she says.
All of this is supported through the company's policies and benefits that are periodically reviewed in response to our people’s evolving needs and emerging societal trends.
“For instance, in 2016, Accenture was among the first companies in India to introduce medical cover for gender reassignment surgery for its people. We also cover mental health consultation for gender dysphoria as part of our medical benefits programme. More recently, in 2021, we modified our parental leave policies, such as maternal, paternal, adoption and surrogacy, to focus on the importance of caregiving versus gender binaries. We have also enabled our people to nominate anyone to be the beneficiary of their life insurance policy including their LGBT+ partners,” she adds.
Global ad-tech company Criteo has launched a project called ‘That’s My Name’, which embraces the name its employees use every day and not their legal name (or the name they were born with).
“We have run several training sessions on Inclusive Language that provides awareness of pronouns and gender language, and we are developing an e-Learning training that will support LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Q2 2022,” says Rachel Scheel, its senior vice president of global diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The company has also introduced the Global Inclusion Index that measures employees’ sense of authenticity, belonging, psychological safety, and inclusive leadership, and is measured through its bi-annual Voices employee survey.
Global technology platform Intuit hosts an annual Trans Summit which is designed to spread awareness, understanding, and knowledge about the transgender and non-binary community with a wide audience to shape the paradigm of inclusivity and acceptance of diversity.
“In the last year that I have been with Intuit, I have never been more comfortable... I have had the ability to express myself in new ways and grow as a person and as a leader. I am truly able to bring my whole self to work and not feel pressured to hide behind the fear of having to shield my true self,” says Julia Kamper (She/Her/Hers), QuickBooks Live Lead at Intuit.
Coverage of transgender health services at any levels, including procedures that are not typically covered by insurance providers, dedicated internal trans community channels for transgender persons or those who have transgender family members are some of the reasons she cites.
Need for inclusive training for organisations
Any organisation that tries to include trans people without sensitising their own workforce faces disaster and inclusive training for organisations is extremely important, says Neelam.
“We as an organisation ourselves, do not entertain something like that because what can also happen is that sometimes people may be sensitive, but they just don't have the right vocabulary, or the right language and may ask things that they don't realise can be extremely hurtful as well to employees from the community,” she says.
Neelam says the overall awareness and sensitisation is important along with an exposure to the community. "…there are many creative ways in which an organisation can help prepare their existing employees before trans persons are actively hired,” she adds.