Workplace equality: A distant dream for transgender people

Corporate jobs help the third gender break stereotypes, but the office space remains a minefield of trouble

For Nayana Udupi, a trans woman who has been working as a vendor manager at ThoughtWorks for the past two years, office is the only place where she can be her true self. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
For Nayana Udupi, a trans woman who has been working as a vendor manager at ThoughtWorks for the past two years, office is the only place where she can be her true self. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Bengaluru: It was on his 25th birthday that Arnav S. realized just how bad he had it.

“Birthdays in our company are an elaborate affair. But I knew better than to expect anything,” says Arnav, a senior market analyst at a multinational company.

“My team lead hated me. He would not call me during meetings, not include me in team outings, and he even had a problem with my girlfriend’s picture that I had on my desk. So, naturally, I didn’t expect him or anyone else to suddenly be nice to me.”

But, this time around, something was different.

On the D day, Arnav was given the full birthday treatment. “They sang happy birthday for me and I was pleasantly surprised.” He even got a gift-wrapped box. “I could feel all their eyes on me as I opened it,” he says.

Except that it wasn’t a gift.

“It was an assortment of hair clips, rubber bands, bindis, bangles and other baubles. They were a reminder of all the things I have been trying to get away from all my life. As I stood there shocked, they simply laughed,” says Arnav in a largely unaffected tone. “The team leader wanted to send out a message that just because I wear my hair short and dress up in men’s clothes, I won’t become a man.”

Arnav is a trans man who is born female but identifies himself as a man.

“People ask me inappropriate questions like who will I marry and what will I wear when I get married. It’s almost routine to be mocked, and being a transgender is almost comical for people,” he says.

These instances are a mere speck in the spectrum of discrimination that more than 488,000 transgender people (census 2011) like Arnav routinely face in India.

Nothing about being a trans person is easy. As conversations on sex and sexuality tend to be a taboo in Indian society, many transgender people grow up confused about their gender identity, left to figure it out all by themselves.

Bullied in schools, many drop out. Seen as an embarrassment to their families, they are forced to leave home. Not surprisingly, some like Arnav, who grew up in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, attempt to commit suicide, unable to face the scorn any longer.

Society’s non-acceptance narrows down their life choices considerably, and they usually make do with whatever’s on offer. That’s why many veer towards begging and sex work.

A few persist and manage to get an education by keeping their identity under wraps. When they finally get ready to enter the world of work in companies, a fresh round of challenges awaits them.

Some try to make the best of it.

“I have a good life inside my office,” says 40-year-old Nayana Udupi, a trans woman, who has been working as a vendor manager at global tech firm ThoughtWorks for the past two years.

For someone who does not have friends on the outside, the workplace is the only place where she can be her true self.

“Here, people know I’m a transgender,” something she will never be able to tell anyone outside. “Outside of the office, people won’t even want to shake my hand or take a glass of water from me when they discover that I’m a transgender. But here, I’m just another employee.”

Getting here hasn’t been easy.

After being turned out of her house as a teenager, she lived with the hijra community for several years. With their help, she was able to physically transform into a woman.

“I wanted to zip out of that male body and be a woman physically too,” she says.

After three years of living as a sex worker in Pune, she took a chance and left the hijra community.

“I felt like I didn’t belong among them and didn’t see a future for myself there,” she says.

As a first step, she signed up for an advanced diploma course in multimedia. As she says: “All I wanted was a normal life and find a regular job.”

The problem with jobs for transgenders is not just about societal and workplace discrimination. About half of the 488,000 transgenders in India are illiterate. So, even if firms want to hire them, the talent pool is limited.

Secondly, even among transgenders, there is scepticism about working in companies.

“Some of them earn a fair amount through sex work but face violence and violations, and have to pay off cops and goondas (hired thugs). So, while they do want more jobs in mainstream organizations, the job has to ensure a living wage and they should know that they will be secure and accepted. Otherwise, they would be reluctant to make the switch,” says Shubha Chacko, founder of Solidarity Foundation, a non-profit that works for transgender rights.

Some governments have tried to address the employment issue. The Tamil Nadu government in 2014 said transgenders could join the state’s home guard force. Earlier this month, the Odisha government became the first to give transgenders social benefits such as pension, housing and food.

Still, transgenders—like anyone really—crave jobs in the private sector.

“Corporate jobs are a sign that society has accepted them. It helps break certain stereotypes about them, and gives them a certain degree of respect,” says Anupama Easwaran, founder, in.harmony, a diversity and inclusion consultancy.

But those jobs are few and far between.

Ask any HR head of India Inc. about challenges and the replies will range from how to deal with millennial employees to improved maternity policies. Even though diversity has become part of corporate consciousness, inclusion has largely meant hiring more women. Few talk of disability and even fewer about including transgender people.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues are relatively new to India in terms of public discourse and societal understanding, says Santrupt Mishra, HR director of Aditya Birla Group. So, the same is reflected in the way employers approach the subject.

“Employers neither ask nor know about these preferences or characteristics of potential employees or employees in terms of sexual orientation. So, we have a state of affairs where employers neither prefer nor discriminate against the LGBT community,” says Mishra.

Preparing the workplace in terms of internal interactions, given India’s history of low acceptance of alternative lifestyles can be challenging, he points out.

Besides, companies want to err on the side of caution as Section 377 currently criminalizes consensual same-sex intercourse. And that is one of the reasons why many companies do not have an anti-discriminatory policy that covers LGBT specifically.

In fact, the findings of a June report by the think tank Mission for Indian Gay and Lesbian Empowerment, which was based on a survey of 100 LGBT persons, found that nearly half of them were not covered by anti-discrimination policies at their workplace. And 87% of them did not have access to formal LGBT employee resource groups within their organization.

Only some multinationals such as Google, IBM Corp., Accenture Plc, Barclays and Thomson Reuters Corp. have LGBT non-discrimination policies in place in India.

Even when companies have policies for transgender inclusion, they will have to show a great deal of sensitivity at every level. Take for instance, washrooms: should trans men be assigned the men’s?

No, says Arnav.

“I cannot use a urinal, and it makes me very uncomfortable when my male co-workers watch me go to a closed door bathroom,” explains Arnav.

So, you may think a women’s toilet would serve him better, but Arnav says given that he identifies himself as a man, he does not want to use a women’s bathroom.

The simple solution really is to have a gender neutral bathroom, say experts, one which can be used by people of any gender, which very few companies have.

“If companies are serious about LGBT issues, they need to specifically look for transgender people and try and hire them because they can’t compete with the general pool,” says Chacko.

She draws a parallel with the older move to hire more women. Then too, companies had to go out and specifically recruit women. “Companies need to put money into what they are claiming. A pride walk alone is not going to help their cause,” says Chacko. “It is hypocrisy.”

There is the cost angle to consider too. A World Bank estimate pegs the cost of social stigma and exclusion of LGBT at $31 billion in India.

To an extent, firms can be more prepared when they go out and hire a transgender person. But when one of their employees decides to transition, they have a huge challenge at hand, as they are suddenly caught unawares with a whole new range of issues, says Easwaran.

Aditya B., a 26-year-old trans man who works in Ahmedabad as an HR professional, is one of them. He has begun the daunting process of transitioning, which can last nearly a year. But he has not told his company about it yet. “They will not understand it anyway and will turn it into some kind of a joke, so what’s the point of telling them,” he says.

Having changed four jobs in six years, he is already on the lookout for the next.

“It is not going to be easy for me to find another job,” he says, recalling a recent incident at a job interview where the interviewer remarked that he expected to meet a woman but was instead sitting across a man.

“Most of my transgender friends are doing their own business. Working in companies is not sustainable in the long run,” says Aditya.

In many cases, firms such as IBM try and transfer employees who are looking to transition to another location to avoid any possibilities of harassment, says Dilpreet Singh, vice-president & HR head at IBM India.

While Section 377 is the reason why many companies resist LGBT inclusion, it has marked a turning point for ThoughtWorks.

“We voiced our concerns about Section 377. But we didn’t want to stop with mere talk; we wanted to show our intent. So, we actively began the hunt for recruiting transgender people. For a company that takes diversity and inclusion seriously, it would have been a shame to not even try,” says Tina Vinod, diversity and inclusion head at ThoughtWorks.

The company also stepped up the challenge for itself by deciding to hire transgender people in white-collar roles as well.

Luckily for ThoughtWorks, Udupi seemed like a likely candidate. Her résumé said she was keen on pursuing design and multimedia, but on assessing her, it found that her skills were quite outdated.

“We had to train her to be able to get her to our standards. Because she had potential, we decided to take a chance on her and enrolled her in a design course,” says Vinod, but a three-month refresher course couldn’t fix the years of learning that Udupi had missed out on.

Instead of giving up, ThoughtWorks evaluated her for other skills. Udupi’s NGO experience stood her in good stead and the company liked her administration skills too.

“For us in the marketing team, vendor management eats up a considerable amount of our time, so her administrative experience could be tapped, we thought,” says Gautham Hanumanthappa, market development manager for ThoughtWorks and Udupi’s manager.

So, the company created a role for her and after nearly six months of “on-boarding”, she was given an offer letter for the position of vendor manager.

Finding a suitable role was only part of the challenge.

The entire organization had to be sensitized. Many counselling and sensitization sessions later, Udupi in 2014 became the first transgender employee to work at ThoughtWorks India.

The company has had little success in finding more people like Udupi. Still, a few other companies such as Future Group and Godrej Group have recently hired a transgender person.

“It is important for companies to consider us,” says Anvesha B., who recently came out to her employer, part of one of India’s largest conglomerates. “If the message is out that employers are giving us a chance, transgender people wouldn’t have to take to sex work and begging,” says the 25-year-old, who is an engineer by qualification.

2014 is a landmark for India as the Supreme Court recognized transgenders as a legal third gender and called on the government to ensure their equal treatment, which has made India one of 10 countries to do so.

It is not without reason that Anvesha says, “It’s a great time to be transgender.” But the stigma and other challenges in the wider society are a reminder of the hard work that lies ahead.