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Is the ad and brand world really walking the talk when it comes to DE&I initiatives?

While we have come across instances of industry players rainbow-washing their way through Pride month, decided to substantiate whether the brands and agencies are really being inclusive to the employees who identify themselves as queer and whether are they making a difference through DE&I initiatives

A few years ago, when R Balaji, Associate Director- Talent Partnerships, Pollen (Zoo Media Group), who identifies herself as queer, had to face inequality in terms of opportunities when she was rejected by one of India’s major brands.

She shared with that when she was looking for a change a couple of years back, she was rejected by a brand, in the last round of interview for her sexuality, as the brand chose to look over her skill set. She said that it was disheartening at a whole another level because it made her think that her career had ended because of her queer identity.

The month of June sees a plethora of marketing activities which build on the narrative for inclusivity on the brand’s side, while the agency ecosystem conducts various activities as part of its diversity, equality and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. 

With much being said and done on both sides, it is time that we get to know as to whether the concept of inclusivity holds relevance in agencies and brands - or is rainbow-washing going on, while really its homophobia that is growing in the ecosystem.

R Balaji

“It’s imperative to break the stereotypical mindset of people that queer people can’t do anything and that they are just a mode of sex, or that they will only toxify the work culture as other people might be uncomfortable with them or even that they might make other employees like them, as if being queer was a communicable disease. There’s still a long way to go when people see us the way they look at a straight person,” Balaji said.

Furthermore, she also went on to add that while there are various policies that are being made at the company level, the legal teams in the corporate set-ups need to come up with some stringent laws which can safeguard the community’s rights.

“If you actually believe in something, don’t just do it for one day or one month, but do it throughout the year. Don’t do it for mere publicity or garnering media coverage or traction, because that’s very insulting. What about leave policies for trans people who are working in corporates or mental health or sabbaticals or a gender-fluid washroom or even gender-fluid policies? The entire motive is to normalise queer participation and recognition and alleviate the stigma attached to it,” Balaji stated.

Kavya Jaiswal

Recalling a similar incident, Kavya Jaiswal, Senior Customer Relationship Manager, Godrej Properties, shared the view that we have come a long way as a community in the past decade. 

“I vividly recall a personal experience when I applied for a job at a BPO. Despite successfully passing all interview rounds, my application was rejected solely because of my gender identity. It was disheartening to hear that they couldn't consider someone like me,” Jaiswal said. 

Jaiswal also shared the belief that while DE&I Initiatives are being driven with good intent overall, not all the companies are doing this in a similar fashion. Jaiswal also said that it’s important to understand that queer people are not here just for a season but exist as a whole, which is why it is imperative to create awareness throughout the year and take specific initiatives to diminish any stereotypes formed against them.

“Our past hardships and experiences of discrimination have shaped us into resilient individuals, capable of overcoming challenges and growing stronger. We deeply value the opportunities given to us and strive to showcase our skills and talents in the most impactful way possible. However, it is important to acknowledge that we still have a long road ahead. Discrimination persists, and we often find ourselves being judged for who we are. Standing up for ourselves and persevering through adversity is a difficult journey that not everyone understands,” Jaiswal said.

Vidya Nair

In the views of Vidya Nair, Brand Strategy Manager, Wiggles, who has personally experienced and witnessed various challenges in professional settings, LGBTQIA+ individuals may face discrimination, bias, or prejudice based on their sexual orientation or gender identity which can often manifest as microaggressions, exclusion, or unfair treatment. 

“There is an underrepresentation of LGBTQIA+ individuals in leadership roles or decision-making positions which is why it is challenging to find role models or mentors who share similar experiences. In fact, many of the community members face the dilemma of whether to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity at work due to fear of negative consequences or judgment,” Nair said.

Furthermore, Nair also shared the view that while progress has been made in terms of DE&I initiatives in the industry, there is still work to be done as it is important to move beyond symbolic gestures and "rainbow washing" to ensure meaningful inclusion for the third gender. 

This can be in the form of developing and enforcing non-discrimination policies that explicitly include protections for gender identity and expression, training and education programs for employees to increase understanding and sensitivity towards the experiences of the third gender or even actively seeking out to include the voices and perspectives of the third gender in campaigns, marketing materials, and decision-making processes, Nair suggested.

Nair also emphasised that the unique perspectives of queer people can lead to fresh ideas, innovative thinking, and more inclusive campaigns and workplaces as they often possess resilience, adaptability, and a deep understanding of the nuances of diverse communities, which can greatly benefit organisations.

Dr. Kasturi Chakraborti

According to Dr. Kasturi Chakraborti, Associate Director- Medical Writer, Havas Life Sorento, who has personally not faced any overt forms of alienation or discrimination in several workplaces - since she remained closeted for the greater part of it to avoid judgement from employers - however, her identity does have a trickle-down effect on the relationships she builds with peers and co-workers.

“Stigma and the fear of its damaging potential is probably the biggest deterrent for queer individuals in expressing themselves. Now that I am out and vocal about my identity, I do find that although I am treated with the same respect as everyone else, there are micro-occurrences on a daily basis that make me take a pause and think about all that we are yet to do to ensure equality or inclusivity go beyond being mere buzzwords or making a decidedly strident attempt at capitalising on allyship because what might be a month-long trend to companies, is life for the community,” Chakraborti said.

With this, Chakraborti agreed that the industry is slowly moving forward in terms of both onscreen and organisational representation, inclusive storylines and solutions, and dedicated outreach and that something is better than nothing.

Chakraborti also shared that because the lived experiences of the community differ markedly from those of cis-het individuals in more ways than one, it is natural that the perspectives will be unique, nuanced and perceptive of insights that may have otherwise flown under the radar.

“Members of the community often have a very firm POV as a result of the hardships we face. So, in essence, our approach, although it is from a different lens, is unlikely to be rose-tinted. It shows the harsh realities of our lives which can be amplified for better outcomes by institutions and vehicles that have a platform to make a statement on a large scale and take a stance for the better,” Chakraborti said. 

Aliya Naushad Ali

Aliya Naushad Ali, Senior Lead- Client Servicing and Growth, Chtrbox, stated that the journey towards inclusivity, diversity, and acceptance of LGBTQIA+ individuals within the advertising industry has been a gradual and ongoing process as education has played a pivotal role in shaping the perspectives of the younger generation, who, unlike previous generations, have access to diverse sources of knowledge such as digital platforms which help in broadening the outlook. 

“Organisations are gradually recognising that one’s capabilities and talents are not determined by their gender or sexuality and that it is high time for the industry to provide equal opportunities for everyone, allowing them to thrive in the global economy. However, eradicating biases, which may exist in the tone used when interacting with members of the queer community that often create a fear of non-acceptance or silent judgement, is not an easy task,” Ali said. 

Furthermore, Ali also went on to suggest that it is the organisations that have the power to foster inclusivity within the community by initiating conversations that educate individuals about the community or on the importance of embracing people as they truly are. 

As per Pallavi, Copy Lead, Django Digital, she has not come out to most of the people around her as of now, owing to the fact that there are several people who don’t understand things such as third gender or LGBTQIA+ community and because she feels that coming out will create a conversation where she becomes answerable for being a certain way.

“There have been several moments when people in one of my ex-workplaces asked me- ‘Do you always have to be so activist-like when it comes to talking about women or people from the queer community?’ which naturally ended up with me landing into a fight in the office. However, I’ve also had various non-binary colleagues who had been misgendered casually and even a trans woman who was constantly undermined despite her capabilities and expertise in her own field,” Pallavi said.

Further, Pallavi also opined that queer people bring a perspective that a cis-het person just cannot, as they have different lived experiences from the latter, especially a cis-het man who belongs to the privileged majority. She also said that people from the community can actually help in Pride month campaign discussions being done on the ideas that are relevant and remarkable as opposed to someone who doesn’t belong to the community.

“The term, LGBTQIA+ friendly in itself is problematic, because it almost dehumanises us and makes us feel like we’re something you aren’t expected to be normal towards. But we will cross these kinds of bridges when we arrive there. As a society, we’re moving in the right direction, but we still have miles to go,” Pallavi said.

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