Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Inclusive policies will not happen with the click of a button: Aparna Mittal

The founder of Samāna Centre says a lot of thinking needs to go through when it comes to implementing inclusive HR policies; merely copying them from the West is not enough—they need to be customised and implemented in the Indian context

Samidha Jain
Published: Jun 15, 2023 12:04:11 PM IST
Updated: Jun 15, 2023 12:37:04 PM IST

Inclusive policies will not happen with the click of a button: Aparna MittalAparna Mittal, ​​an equality, diversity and inclusion advisor, a corporate lawyer and founder of Samāna Centre for Gender, Policy and Law.

Aparna Mittal founded the Samāna Centre in 2018 with the aim of “bringing about meaningful social impact and change by creating tangible and measurable growth, and empowering women and members of the LGBTQ community in India”. A prominent name in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) advisory and corporate law, Mittal has over 19 years of professional experience.

She is a contributing member of G20 EMPOWER, an alliance focussed on bolstering women's economic representation in the private sector. Additionally, she serves on the task force on diversity and inclusion established by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) since 2019. For her work and experience in the field, Mittal was recently honoured with the ‘Iconic Women Creating a Better World for All’ award at the Women Economic Forum.

In conversation with Forbes India, Mittal explains the pain points of implementing inclusive work policies, what needs to change and how to bring about that change. Edited excerpts:

Q. In your opinion, are the current inclusive HR policies in workplaces in India enough? Many companies don't even have anything specific about the LGBTQ+ community.
Everything from a small local neighbourhood store to a big conglomerate or MNC is part of corporate India, and with this imagination of real corporate India, we haven't even gone beyond 5 to 10 percent with regards to LGBTQ+ inclusion work and policies. Work is definitely happening at a good pace now, but it is happening in limited pockets. It is happening in a lot of MNCs. It is also happening in some Indian companies who are committed enough to walk the talk on LGBTQ rights.

Q. What are some of the common challenges faced by companies in India when it comes to implementing inclusive HR policies?
Before we reach the point of implementation, I think the challenge comes in terms of understanding who the LGBTQ+ community is, the issues they face at the workplace and beyond. I think the general awareness around us on matters of gender and sexual orientation is unfortunately very limited. It's not talked about openly at homes, in schools, and it's definitely not talked about at workplaces. There are still a lot of apprehensions and inhibitions when talking about the LGBTQ+ community, their lived experiences and issues. And this has to change. The challenge is a mix of lack of awareness and willingness, and a vicious cycle of lack of safe visibility for the queer community. Global studies show that more than 11 percent of any population can be from the LGBTQ+ community and yet companies assume no one at their workplace is from the community. There is a dire need to understand not only why DEI is important, but also how to create suitable initiatives and implement them as well.

Q. Are there any specific laws or regulations in India that companies should be aware of when it comes to implementing inclusive HR policies?
I think people need to understand that we have a progressive Constitution that prohibits any kind of discrimination, and clearly talks about equal opportunity and equality for all. While there are these lofty ideals of equality and non-discrimination enshrined in the Constitution of India, their implementation, especially in the private sector remains low. And India does not have comprehensive micro laws that convert these ideals of the Constitution into implementable laws or frameworks. In terms of the legal gaps, I think a lot of the real, practical day-to-day rights—right to marry and for legal recognition of the marriage, right to medical insurance for the same sex partner, rights for a homosexual couple to adopt a child—a lot of these personal rights are still not available to the LGBT community entirely and that remains an area where they are continuing their pursuit for equality and justice.

Some changes have been brought about such as the new Transgender Persons Protection of Rights Act of 2019 and some changes in the labour laws, especially for the transgender community. For example, where the law earlier said that equal pay for equal work has to be provided for men and women, they have now made it equal pay for equal work for any gender, not just men and women.

Also read: Evolved HR practices for the future ready organisation

Q. What advice would you give to companies in India that are just starting their journey towards implementing inclusive HR policies?
I think that organisations need to understand that the need is not just for policies that grant specific rights and benefits to the LGBTQ community, but also to ensure there are robust internal frameworks to prevent (and address) any kind of discrimination, harassment, etc that may happen on the floor of the organisation. We need to look at a 360-degree view— from a microscope—on all policies, processes of and even some infrastructure at the organisation. Even how your job descriptions are written, the kind of questions you're asking in the interview, all of that will have to change if you really have to walk the talk on LGBTQ+ policies.

I think it's important to understand this is not a low-hanging fruit where it can be done in two days. It requires a lot of thoughtful action day on day to build the entire design of policies, processes, infrastructure, and culture to bring about positive and inclusive change. And, a word of caution—simply colouring the company logo in pride colours is not a good practice, it actually is harmful; you are representing to the world that you are inclusive, but if you have not really implemented things internally, either for your employees or for your customers or vendors, then that’s actually a misrepresentation and they may continue to face inappropriate behaviour or exclusion.

All organisations in India—those starting out and those with many years of experience—need to understand that inclusion policies and initiatives for the LGBTQ+ community is a fairly nuanced area. Merely copying certain policies which have been working in the West and bringing them to India will not be enough. They need to be customised and implemented in an Indian context, that too with industry- and sector-specific customisations. It's important for companies to work with somebody who understands the entire gamut of how this has to be done, the best practices and pitfalls, and intentionally curate those policies mindfully. Inclusion and inclusive policies will not happen with the click of a button. A lot of thinking and hard work needs to go through, and a lot of processes need to be built over time.

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