It is pride season and time for many corporations in India to showcase their rainbow affiliations. Yet, as the rainbow flag billows higher than ever in the cultural landscape, questions persist: is the corporate world embracing diversity and inclusion for India’s diverse queer community or is this a convenient opportunity, with great optics, to brandish liberal credentials?

Globally, and also in India, corporate culture is known to be toxic, gender insensitive, queerphobic and casteist. In recent years, however, there have been efforts to foster more inclusive cultures at companies. Increasingly, companies are implementing inclusive policies, non-discrimination clauses and establishing employee resource groups dedicated to queer concerns.

This progress is commendable but it is important to ascertain if it is lip service or a tangible commitment to creating workplaces where everyone can thrive, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.

The evidence is mixed. Even today, most corporations in India do not have a queer-inclusive culture. Companies may espouse values of equity but it is rare to see an obvious statement or a public position on matters of concern. It is somewhat different for some of the global giants, which have been vocal advocates of queer rights. Compared to their Indian counterparts, global corporations have fared relatively better in implementing progressive policies and have also used their influence to champion inclusivity on a broader scale.

Within Indian companies, where queer Indians also work, there is little visibility of actual inclusiveness. A report in Analytics India Magazine estimates that only 9.5% of Indian information technology organisations have actively undertaken initiatives for queer inclusivity. “Recruitment efforts are predominantly concentrated at junior and middle management levels,” notes the report.

Do corporations actively engage with and support the queer community or merely exploit them for optics and profit?

Symbolic, hollow gestures

“Pinkwashing” is when companies or organisations use symbolic gestures of support for queer rights without backing them with substantive action or internal changes. For example, during Pride Month, companies change their logos to incorporate rainbow colours but fail to implement inclusive policies such as equal benefits for partners, support for queer employees, policies discouraging discrimination or even regular training on not just gender and sexuality but also caste and gender minorities.

Other strategies involve tokenism, where queer individuals feature prominently in advertisements but there is no internal commitment to diversity. Some companies even exploit queer causes for profit by selling queer-friendly or queer-appealing products. Companies, of course, rarely state if they truly support the rights of these communities or even if proceeds go to relevant charities or communities.

Even so, pinkwashing is not always easy to spot. It often becomes evident when companies selectively endorse popular queer issues while ignoring less mainstream topics or anything perceived as controversial that affects the community. For instance, making inclusive comments on the rights of communities while neither supporting nor taking positions on bullying, social discrimination or marriage equality or unions.

Why it matters

When corporations use rainbow colours in their logos, is it because they want to address systemic issues, provide equal rights to queer employees and speak up for injustices for queer folks and others? If not, they are appropriating the space and struggle of queer individuals and allies. Moreover, it risks perpetuating harmful stereotypes and also contributing to a culture of performative activism. It not only damages the credibility of corporate commitment but also trivialises the challenges queer individuals face.

A crucial aspect of authentic corporate support is the representation of queer individuals at all levels of the corporate hierarchy. To foster genuine inclusivity, companies must actively work towards dismantling barriers that hinder the professional progression of queer individuals within their organisations. This requires a commitment to mentorship, career development and a workplace culture that values diversity at every level.

Recognising the vast diversity within the queer community is pivotal here. It is not a monolithic entity but encompasses individuals spanning gender, caste and socioeconomic backgrounds. To achieve true inclusivity, corporations must adopt an intersectional approach that address the unique challenges faced by various groups.

This involves ensuring diverse representation at all levels of leadership, implementing inclusive policies and benefits that address the specific needs of queer employees and holding regular diversity training to foster understanding and empathy.

Creating employee resource groups or affinity networks tailored to different identity intersections can facilitate connection and support. Recruitment strategies should actively seek diverse talent and workspaces must be designed to be physically accessible and considerate of different abilities and identities. Inclusive language, communication, and wellness programs are essential, along with regular feedback mechanisms. Collaboration with external queer advocacy groups with an intersectional approach can provide valuable support.

Employee activism

One powerful force in holding corporations accountable to their commitments is employee activism. There have been several instances where employees, fuelled by a desire for genuine change, have spearheaded movements that resulted in positive shifts in corporate attitudes and policies.

Encouraging open dialogue between employees and employers is crucial as it facilitates a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by queer individuals within the workplace and paves the way for collaborative solutions. Employee activism not only ensures accountability but also instils a sense of community within organisations.

The queer community deserves more than symbolic gestures and performative support. What it needs are substantive actions that permeate every layer of corporate culture. The way ahead in a commitment to continuous improvement and a realisation that embracing diversity is not a once a year initiative but a journey. Only then can a queer-hostile corporate culture be undone to create workplaces where every colour of the rainbow shines brightly.

Samragni Dagupta, is a theatre artist, queer writer and public policy professional associated with the The Rahaat Project.

Chapal Mehra is Director at The Rahaat Project and a public health specialist.