Breaking Boundaries in India

June 3, 2014Below are some highlights from a recent conversation between Catalyst and Parmesh Shahani, head of India Culture Lab at Godrej Industries Ltd., author of Gay Bombay, and editor-at-large of Verve magazine.

What does Culture Lab do and how does it promote inclusiveness in India’s workplaces and society at large?

The Godrej Culture Lab is an experimental space that we started in India about three years ago to bring together the best minds across India and the world to explore what it means to be modern and Indian. We create events to break boundaries. We do lectures, talks, and performances. We have conferences and art shows. And then, there are the factory pop-ups, where we take old unused factories and turn them into spaces for art. The concept in itself is inclusive—we’re breaking boundaries between different fields and spaces. There’s an overall sense of inclusion, but additionally we have a strong LGBT component. It’s not deliberate—we’re past all of that. We don’t say, “Let’s have 30% of content be women, or LGBT-oriented.” It happens organically.

What is it like being gay in the workplace in India?

Personally, I’ve worked for companies that have treated LGBT positively. When I joined Mahindra I told the chairman that I didn’t want to be treated differently, and I wasn’t. Then when I joined Godrej, I wanted this not just for me, but all LGBT people. So, we tweaked the clauses and policies at Godrej—they are very inclusive. We offer the same benefits to everyone. Personally I’ve been very out wherever I’ve worked and I haven’t faced overt discrimination. But my experience is very rare, it’s not typical.

Did things change substantially in the workplace when the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality in 2009? What has changed since it was recriminalized recently?

The 2009 verdict decriminalizing homosexuality was a huge boon for the larger Indian workforce, for companies, for coming out. It was great. The recriminalization in 2013 has been a huge source of concern. But at this point so many people have come out, they can’t go back in. Between then and now, there’s been an increase in confidence among LGBT people, so they don’t WANT to go back in. The 2013 verdict has been unfortunate, but it has led to a further articulation of LGBT issues in the workplace. It won’t push back the progress made between then and now. The outrage in the workplace has ensured that this remains an issue, and Godrej, for example, will not go back on its diversity initiatives or programs. Are other companies like this? I don’t know, but a lot of people and organizations have expressed solidarity. Corporate India should guide the way for the Supreme Court to give a more enlightened verdict next time the matter comes up.

Why are inclusive and diverse workplaces good for business?

There is a business case for inclusive and diverse workplaces.

When you focus on diverse audiences, you create a sense of connection with a huge segment of potential customers. And great talent lies in these people, so smart companies are actively pursuing diversity so that they don’t lose out on the best minds. It’s about a diverse talent pool—not just LGBT minds, but heterosexual minds, too.

And in these days of social media, with Facebook and Twitter, there’s increased awareness and conversation on these issues. People talk about which companies are good to work for—who is diverse and inclusive. Everyone wants to work for diverse companies—LGBT and straight people alike!

We understand that the Godrej India Culture Lab recently hosted a special pop-up edition of Kashish, the biggest LGBT Film festival in India and South Asia. Why is this festival so important—not just for India but for other countries, like China, where homosexuality is still taboo?

LGBT fests may sometimes just attract LGBT audiences, but when you do them in public spaces it is a chance for diverse audiences to have conversations. Last year’s Pop Up Kashish was packed. We had people from across Godrej, from across the city. Since it was a corporate campus, people from the company were able to witness and enjoy the event in an inclusive atmosphere.

How are these films important in helping society and workplaces understand people with all types of differences?

People see them, and relate them to things in their own lives, then talk about them. It can lead to cathartic moments. We had one woman watch this film about a mother who discovers her son’s diary, reads it and finds out that he’s gay. She stood up and said that she didn’t know if her son or daughter was gay, but this film really made her rethink motherhood. She was in tears—it was a real Oprah moment!

People in the corporate world need this kind of engagement. Due to work pressures they don’t have the time to seek it out, maybe, so we have to bring it to them. And it is so enriching. Events like these affect morale, pride, and attitudes and that show when they go back to their workplaces.

What is your best advice for companies in India for making workplaces more inclusive?

Start doing it right away. Don’t be afraid to take up the gauntlet. In India, more than any place in the world, you have so many young people who come to companies to finish their education. They are still learning when they join their first jobs, so it’s the companies’ responsibility to nurture diverse, inclusive environments.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.