What is diversity and inclusion?

There is no better example than mother nature when we speak about diversity and inclusion. Every single thing on earth has a role to play, a well-intended purpose! Nature teaches us that diversity is critical for not just a resilient and regenerative system, but also for a balanced and sustainable one. Likewise, India is one of the most diverse countries in the world, having varied topographies, cultures, customs, languages, traditions, rituals, cuisines, festivals etc. and yet, there is an underlying 'Indian-ness' that binds everything together.

Although the terms 'diversity' and 'inclusion' are often used in the same breath, it needs to be understood that both are two distinct aspects in order to address them meaningfully. While one may recognize diversity, one may not necessarily be inclusive or promote equity. It is as simple as being invited to a gathering but not being included in the activities of the group.

While 'diversity' describes a wide variety of differences that exist amongst people, 'inclusion' ensures that 'diverse' people feel welcome, safe and included. Inclusion at work is all about acknowledging varied skills, traits and perspectives that employees with unique backgrounds bring to the table. In other words, it involves recognizing the value of individual differences and embracing them to create a workplace where both employers and employees celebrate and shine together.

While one may hire a diverse workforce, if the work culture does not provide a supportive framework, it would not be possible to sustain such diversity. If diversity widens access to the best talent, inclusiveness and equity helps engage and retain that talent efficiently.

The Indian Legislative Framework

While India does not have a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in place, there are certain laws such as the Equal Remuneration Act of 19761 ("Remuneration Act"), The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 ("SCST Act"), the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013 ("PoSH Act"), The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 ("Disabilities Act"), The Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017 ("HIV Act") and The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 ("Transgender Persons Protection Act") which have all been enacted with the objective of inter alia prohibiting discrimination and harassment on the basis of characteristics protected under such laws.

The Remuneration Act seeks to narrow down the disparity in wages between male and female workers performing work of a similar nature, besides protecting women from employment or occupational discrimination. The Code on Wages, 2019 which will subsume the Remuneration Act, once made effective, broadens its ambit to prohibit discrimination in employment related matters on the grounds of 'gender' without limiting its focus to women alone. While the PoSH Act seeks to provide a safe and conducive workplace for women, the SCST Act, Disabilities Act, Transgender Persons Protection Act and HIV Act seek to prohibit discrimination on the basis of such characteristics and provide such persons with equal employment opportunities. Under the Disabilities Act and Transgender Persons Protection Act, employers are also mandated to frame and implement equal opportunity policies. In 2018, a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 18602, decriminalizing same sex relationships between consenting adults. This was a landmark judgement in terms of ensuring equality of people, regardless of their sexual preferences.

With the objective of reducing women drop-outs and facilitating their return to work after childbirth, the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 was amended in 2017 to enhance maternity leaves, besides extending several other benefits including provision of a crèche facility and work from home in situations where the work may be performed remotely, enabling mothers to attend to their motherly responsibilities while simultaneously managing their professional lives. Likewise, the Companies Act, 2013 requires every listed company and every public limited company having a paid-up capital of INR 100 crore or more or turnover of INR 300 crore or more, to have at least one woman director on the board, ensuring female representation.

Despite the rise in education, it is unfortunate that the female labour force participation worldwide has remained low especially in leadership level positions. Although the percentage of female population in India is about 48% of the total population, only 26% of India Inc.'s workforce comprises of women3.

The Indian government has actively been championing the cause of increasing women labour force participation in the country and have accordingly been encouraging employers to adopt flexible work hours, work from home and other flexible work arrangements. Accordingly, The Industrial Relations Code, 2020 ("IR Code") has formally recognized the concept of work from home, by including a reference to the same in the draft Model Standing Orders for the services sector.

Grievance redressal mechanisms

Another facet of ensuring diversity and inclusion at the workplace is to put in place robust grievance redressal mechanisms. In order to be inclusive, organizations will need to listen to their employees and build a culture where employees feel heard and have the right to raise their grievances fearlessly. Controversies and conflicts are normal in any system that is evolving and actively working to become better. However, an appropriate grievance redressal mechanism would help resolve such conflicts.

A system or mechanism for addressing grievances has been provided for in all of the afore-mentioned laws. For example, while the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, one of India's oldest labour laws, provides for the constitution of a Grievance Redressal Committee ("GRC") for the resolution of disputes arising out of individual grievances, the PoSH Act provides for the constitution of an Internal Complaints Committee, consisting of at least 50% female members to redress complaints pertaining to workplace sexual harassment of women. The IR Code (which is yet to be made effective) also provides for the constitution of a GRC with female representation proportionate to the female representation in the industrial establishment. Likewise, the Disabilities Act requires every employer to appoint a Liaison Officer and the Transgender Persons Protection Act, and the HIV Act requires an employer to designate a person to be a Complaint Officer to deal with complaints relating to violation of the provisions of the law.

Diversity NOT a threat, but a potential for growth

There is an increasing body of evidence that establishes a positive co-relationship between diversity and inclusion practices and a healthy work culture, increased competitiveness, innovation, overall growth and engagement of the company. Implementing a strong diversity and inclusion framework facilitates the creation of a safe, supportive, dignified and respectful environment. The understanding and wisdom of a diverse work force also helps enrich the decision-making process. For example, many organizations have been undertaking internal surveys to collect the personal data of their workforce to analyse and take relevant actions.

While some organizations have appointed a chief diversity and inclusion officer to drive their diversity and inclusion agendas, many others are reshaping their parenting, wellness, PoSH and safety benefits. Some employers have gone a step ahead to ensure that their insurance policies accommodate the medical needs of same-sex partners and extend parental benefits to same-sex partners. Some employers have adopted programs with an intentional emphasis of hiring people in the autism spectrum. In order to ensure a more gender inclusive workplace, many employers have adopted flexible work entitlements such as extended maternity/parental support, work from home, extended child-care leave along with wellness programmes and have also been facilitating capacity and leadership development opportunities specifically for women. Some employers have even adopted Career Return Programs for women returning back from their sabbaticals, to dissolve the taboo associated with career breaks. For many industrialized companies, bringing women to the forefront in senior roles is now a priority agenda.

Conclusion

Building safe and inclusive workplaces that foster and nurture equal opportunities and respect for everyone is definitely a USP for organizations today. Several progressive organizations are on their way to making DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) as a competitive differentiating factor for themselves and their stakeholders.

It is high time that all default thinking patterns are set aside and organizations begin to appreciate and embrace differences to create a culture of workplace belongingness. The objective should not be to simply tick-off a checklist to be in compliance with applicable laws or do certain things to follow the herd. In one of the landmark judgments by the Supreme Court of India, the court observed that in order to enable persons with disabilities to lead a life of equal dignity and worth, it would not be sufficient to simply mandate that discrimination against them is impermissible.4 This also points towards the fact that we need to shift from a "charity-based" approach to a "rights-based" approach.

In order to further their DEI agendas, employers will need to take concrete steps enabling equal access to opportunities and address all forms of conscious and unconscious bias at the workplace. Increased workplace sensitivity is one of the most important steps towards this direction, which can be achieved with effective education and constant reminders of the organizational culture through employee engagement activities.

To enrich an organization with diversity, it is critical to institutionalize inclusion and equity. Merely having policies would not suffice, if they are not implemented and monitored carefully. Affirmative actions need to be taken in all spheres of employment, whether it be in relation to recruitments, talent pool creation, promotions or even governance structures itself. For example, ensuring diversity in leadership level roles will help shape policies and implementation strategies that are relevant and adaptable. Regular dialogue of mid and top-level leadership with the workforce can also help inspire confidence and a sense of belongingness, besides fostering an environment of inclusion and respect from top to bottom.

Ensuring gender diversity and inclusion is definitely a long-drawn collective commitment and there is no magic solution for the same. While India Inc. has made significant strides in building a diverse and inclusive workplace, sustained efforts would be required to ensure that we remain on the right track. The journey to create a safe, diverse, and inclusive workplace is an ever-evolving space with no finish line - it is a continuous process of creating a progressive and transformational culture which requires one to keep reinventing the wheel with changing times.

Footnotes

1. To be replaced by the Code on Wages, 2019

2. Navtej Singh Johar and Ors. vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors. (AIR 2018 SC 4321)

3. As reported in https://www.assocham.org/uploads/files/Diversity%20Report_compressed.pdf

4. Vikash Kumar vs. Union Public Service Commission and Ors. (AIR 2021 SC 2447)

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