Finding a job you like is difficult. There has to be a role that interests you, the compensation has to be good, the team you will eventually work with should be cooperative and helpful. The same struggle increases manifold when the job searcher is from the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, or questioning) community. It is not just that queer-friendly policies are missing from the workplace, but also the behaviour of peers that is not always positive.

Rise, or Reimagining Inclusion for Social Equity, is India’s first job fair for the LGBTQ+ community. Organized by Pride Circle, a diversity and inclusion consultancy, the fair is one of the few platforms that are trying to make workspaces more welcoming for those who do not conform to traditional gender norms. The fair had its first edition in Bengaluru last year and the second edition in Delhi on 22 February. Over 30 companies participated in the first edition, and about 20 were present for the second one.

The number of applicants went up from 400 in Bengaluru to over 1,200 in Delhi, informs Ramakrishna Sinha, co-founder, Pride Circle. “It is a reflection of the size of the market here and the region around it. Each market or region has a set number of corporations that have a policy on inclusion. They also hire in cycles which is why we saw less companies but more applications."

Pride Circle began with the aim of starting conversations around LGBTQ+ work experiences. They started doing meet-ups and realized most firms only have one or two persons who were “out". “This made it difficult for them to design policies even if they wanted to," says Sinha. They then started helping corporates design inclusion policies, and raised awareness within the C-suite about the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ people.

The challenges ahead

Having worked with companies like First Source and Xerox, where the issues faced by the queer community were never talked about, Bengaluru’s Kusuma Krishna wanted to look for a company where LGBTQ+ rights would be addressed. “I was always conscious and tried to fit in. During lunch conversations, I would always lie about having a boyfriend," says Krishna, 33.

She moved on to a multinational, where the diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies gave her enough confidence to finally come out to her manager. Even in her next job with ANI Technologies (Ola Cabs), Krishna felt the same comfort level. “In spite of Ola not having separate policies, the atmosphere was more open and liberal. Maybe because it was a startup. I knew wherever I went next, it would need to have the same policies, safeguarding LGBT rights."

Last year, Krishna attended the first edition of Rise and after going through multiple rounds, landed a job as a program manager at software company, Intuit.

At Intuit, Krishna says, she has felt comfortable from the first day since team members were already sensitized. The additional benefits were the D&I policies in the company. “Policies like insurance coverage for same sex partners makes you feel that yes, your relationship is legitimate too," she says.

For Pallavi Varma, 24, the first edition of Rise was a way to get out of her shell. A freelancer till then, Varma had only looked for jobs online through LinkedIn and Glassdoor. “But online meant that there would be no opportunity to make an impression. I would worry that even if I did get hired, will it get uncomfortable later? Would I face issues with co-workers because of my sexual orientation?" Varma recalls.

But attending Rise made her feel comfortable. There were never any questions about her sexual orientation, both during the form fill-ups or during follow-up interviews.

“Knowing they already knew that I belonged to the LGBT community, and I did not need to pretend, meant a huge burden was lifted," says Varma, who joined The Unhotel Company, a travel experiences firm, as creative director and international sales, in July.

Her decision to join them was not impulsive. The Unhotel Company founders were known to be sensitive to queer issues and were trying to make the workspace safer for them, something which Varma found while doing background research on the company.

Unlike Varma and Krishna, Odisha’s Sonal Pradhan, 30, a transgender woman, had a tough time finding a job.

“Firstly, there weren’t many jobs available. Then there were several other challenges. I did get a government job as a trainer, which offered salary and gave me a subsidized accommodation in a hostel, but after a year and a half, they asked me to vacate the hostel. As a trans-person, I could not find any accommodation in the city and had to leave the job as well. These challenges employers do not consider," she says. Pradhan decided to go to Bengaluru and attend Rise. She knew her chances of securing a job were higher at a job fair that only had LGBTQ+ people. After facing rejection by a few, she landed a job as a customer support executive with 24[7].ai, a customer experience software and services company.

Since joining, Pradhan has been instrumental in helping the company establish queer-friendly policies and changes.

For instance, 24[7].ai is now trying to build a group that welcomes more queer employees.

“Even small things like dedicated washrooms were not thought of before I joined. As the first trans-person to join the company, if I entered the women’s washroom, others would get uncomfortable. I brought up this issue, and now the company has designated one gender-neutral washroom on each floor," says Pradhan.

Learning the tricks

For The Unhotel Company’s co-founder Shilpi Singh, coming to Rise’s Bengaluru edition was an opportunity to broaden her perspective. As a practising leadership coach in the D&I area, Singh and her partner were already sensitized to the issue of LGBTQ+ community.

“Pallavi made us aware of a lot of things we did not realize we were doing, something as simple as using pronouns that they identify with, or not making jokes even in private, when only friends are around. These are unconscious biases we have had, and now we are becoming more aware of them, and hence, we are trying to address them," says Singh.

Many companies, such as Accenture, Intuit and American Express, have been part of the two editions of the Rise fair. Most of them are trying to reach out to the community, which is hardly represented in the workforce.

“Opening doors for underrepresented people is not enough. We need to address the factors that prevent so many of them from walking through it, and more importantly, succeeding once they’re inside by removing biases and barriers encountered by them," says Pavan Vaish, head of central operations, Uber India and South Asia.

Lakshmi C., managing director and lead for human resources, Accenture India, believes that a platform like Rise acts as a bridge, connecting them to a large LGBTQ+ talent pool.

“Once hired, our inclusive practices and programmes enable people to bring their authentic selves to work. Creating a safe and open environment for our workforce is a key priority, one where they can share their experiences and inspire not just other members of the community, but also sensitize non-LGBT people,"adds Lakshmi.

Finding the right job is just one step. It is also the changes they will bring about in the workplace that makes the bigger picture worth noticing.

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