Marico boss fights for LGBTQ+ inclusivity, says it’s ‘the order of the day’ for Corporate India

“We started with some concrete steps to create a more socially represented organization and work to create a supportive environment for people of all genders,” said Harsh Mariwala, founder of Mariwala Health Initiative and president of . He shares that specific thoughts and actions should also be undertaken to make spaces inclusive and accessible to a range of sexual orientations, cultural identities and diverse educational backgrounds.

“Of course, part of this involves changes in hiring practices, the introduction of gender-neutral policies, benefits for same-sex partners as well as training programs for employees. However, as a strong believer in building culture – we can’t stop there – there is a lot to do to continue to be an assertive and safe space if we are to attract and retain diverse talent, shares Mariwala.

In an interview with ETPanache, Mariwala explains why he thinks inclusivity is on the agenda for Indian businesses.

On a personal level, how do you support the community?
I have always enjoyed reading and learning about a range of issues. I believe that personal work and self-education are important. Other than that, as part of my personal philanthropy through Mariwala Health Initiative, a mental health advocacy, capacity building, and grantmaking organization, I support a number of LGBTQI+ mental health programs. As I am passionate about mental health capacity building, MHI runs the Queer Affirmative Counseling Practice course – which has trained over 450 mental health professionals on working with queer-trans clients. MHI also partners with and supports LGBTQI+ collectives in Manipur, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and West Bengal that run helplines, provide crisis support or have drop-in centres.

Why are you very attached to the question of the mental health of LGBTQI people?
When I read and spoke to several people about mental health, I realized that various marginalized communities face many barriers to being able to access mental health. One of the people I spoke to was Dr. Shruti Chakravarty, a mental health professional who is part of the LGBTQI+ community. I realized that there was a significant gap in engagement with the felt needs of the community as well as the quality of services provided. When I read about mental health stigma, it is also important to address other types of stigma and discrimination – which then lead to distress for LGBTQI+ people. I believe we cannot focus on long-term social transformation without engaging with LGBTQI+ mental health.

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What are some of the stressors this community faces?
The community faces multiple stressors – these can be at the individual, family, community and of course societal level. People can struggle with self-acceptance and guilt for being who they are – but also face challenges of discrimination from their own friends, family and peers. This can lead to both loss of livelihood opportunities and loneliness. Just last year, a 15-year-old committed suicide due to bullying at his school because of his sexuality. There is also a need for mental health professionals to improve their skills to be able to work with the LGBTQI+ community

What can companies do to be more inclusive?
I believe that creating inclusive organizational cultures is essential. Yes, policies and initiatives are important, but cultural change at all levels is important. Much of this responsibility rests with senior levels of leadership who take steps to make their support for diversity visible and clear. Additionally, I think it’s important to carefully track and monitor our work on this – part of that tracking includes a robust system for receiving complaints. I believe there is important work to be done and it cannot be a destination we reach but something we need to continually reflect on.

How can companies challenge heteronormative structures?
First, it’s important to understand our point of view – everything around us is heteronormative. Thus, companies must form themselves by listening to the communities with which they would like to work. Since there is so much discussion about accessibility or gender-neutral bathrooms, it is also important to understand how organizational processes and culture should also be examined. For example, job interviews may reflect heteronormativity – questions such as “are you married?” Or how office dress codes can become obstacles for some. This needs to extend outdoors or downtime – are such socializing events for husbands and wives? To begin to challenge heteronormative structures, organizations also need to open space for each employee to manage their discomforts and work on being nonjudgmental.

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