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Diversity in social sector: working towards elusive ideal

Sudheesh Venkatesh, Nov 3 2017, 23:40 IST
Diversity

Diversity

'Diversity' and 'Inclusion' are buzz words in the corporate sector today. Every organisation seems to be keen to win the diversity battle. A 'battle', considering what Google went through when one of their team spoke about diversity in a misogynistic tone. So, let's start by understanding 'diversity'.

Diversity acknowledges the differences that we all bring. It also means respect for and appreciation of differences in ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, education, or religion, differences of all kinds. These maybe through artificial constructs or those that exist naturally.

Inclusion is making space for this diversity. While diversity is about the right mix we want, Inclusion is ensuring that this mix feels valued and respected. Inclusion is to ensure a safe place for this diverse mix.

Diversity has been a 'nice to do' rather than a 'need to do' for most organisations. It can often take a backseat depending on the organisation's priorities or can also be a topical flavour. For social sector organisations that champion overall development and well-being of the society, issues like diversity take centre stage, or at least they should.

In India, the issue of diversity is particularly stark compared to other countries, given the sheer size of the population and disparity that exists within it, caused by social, economic, political and often even geographic factors. In India, caste-gender-religion based discriminations are built into its very fabric of existence. Diversity is a hard battle.

Social sector organisations strive to eliminate the disparities that exist in our society. While some may work at providing better sanitation, better food to the marginalised, some work towards provi ding a good education, some work on sustain-
ability. None of the work that these organ isations do can sustain or create any long-term impact if they can't address the basic evils of a fractured and inequitable society. They need to exemplify what inclusion means, and hence diversity within becomes
critical for social sector organisations.

Operationally, diversity poses many challenges. Most of the development sector organisations work in remote, most-deprived locations. An employee may have to change multiple buses or walk through difficult terrain. The hotels to stay in may not be safe. While the challenges will be the same for men and women, given the conditioning of our society, these locations may be seen as 'unsafe' for women. This assumption is not without basis in the form of numerous cases of assault and harassment that get reported across the country against women.

Secondly, organisations that work in the development sector work in and, many a times, against a regressive, casteist, sexist, patriarchal society (illustrating just a small list of social evils to be fought and overcome). They work with people that they are trying to change, they draw the workforce from this same society. While working with these complexities, bringing in a diverse work pool, increases the challenges manifold.

Beware of tokenisms

Organisations need to be wary of indulging in tokenisms. For example, while 'period leave' seems to give the right message in supporting women, we can champion diversity only when women in the organisation find equal opportunities for growth.

We need to encourage people of all backgrounds to apply to us. We must work in overcoming the infrastructural challenges, provide for safe hotels and safe travel, provide assistance, make policies that recognise issues of workplace safety. Recruiters and interviewers need to be trained to root out any inherent biases or personal beliefs that may subconsciously stop them from recruiting people from any gender, faith or caste. We need policies that are sensitive to people's backgrounds, their belief systems.

Our value systems are built over time and it takes time for people to accept an opposing idea €“ people, after all, are products of the society they come from. In the societies that we work in, we first need to change the belief system and enable change at the grassroots. This will mean counselling and talking, debating and dialoguing and making people understand the inherent misogyny and why equal opportunities are important. These discussions will take time - and slowly, but surely, they will bring the required change.

Times are changing, and we see a greater acceptance of women in some of the most challenging locations. Organisations are more conscious of drafting policies that are sensible and sensitive. We see from our experiences that boundaries of caste and religion dissolve when work becomes meaningful.

While development sector organisations may not flaunt diversity numbers, real heartening stories are coming from the field. A young Muslim girl from a traditionally conservative family goes on to teach Sanskrit in our Sirohi school.

Many women want to be posted at our Uttarkashi District Institute, one of the remotest regions of the country, because they want to make a difference and don't mind the hardship. In some other organisations, we hear of stories of transgenders being accepted in the workforce. These and many more are stories of change. Stories of diversity that will create an impact on mindsets, on the society.

We should guard against becoming exclusive. While offsetting for disadvantage, we should provide equal opportunities to all. While focusing on diversity, we should not forget professional merit. In the complex environments that we operate in, we need to tread carefully. We need to respond to issues on the ground and the response needs to be contextualised. We will never have an answer that fits all, but gradually we are taking steps in the right direction.

The need for "unity in diversity" is now. The development sector seems to be demonstrating this in small but significant ways already.

(The writer is Chief People Officer, Azim Premji Foundation)

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