A hotshot tech entrepreneur in Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley, had once told me that they won’t disclose the number of women working in the company because if the number appeared too low, "fathers won’t let their daughters join us".

Such bizarre attitudes towards diversity and inclusion form the backdrop against which serial entrepreneur Pallavi Pareek built her latest venture, Ungender. I first met Pallavi about a decade ago, when I was the managing editor of a business management magazine in Mumbai. We lost touch, only to bubble up on each other’s radars earlier this year thanks to our intersecting interests.

Ungender wants "to help leaders of today build inclusion for all genders". It identifies obstacles to building diverse and inclusive workplaces, and offers tailored solutions. On its website, it claims marquee clientele including Airbnb and Microsoft.

It seemed to me much more powerful than words like "marginalised" or "backward". At the core of the experience of marginalisation is often the chronic lack of opportunity – specifically, economic opportunity. It is at the workplace that discrimination often finds its most damaging manifestations. Fixing the workplace isn’t just capitalism by a different name – it is a social justice issue.

Pallavi says her overarching goal is to help restore "dignity" to work. As my regular readers know,

Recently, I caught up with Pallavi and Ungender’s communications director, Rituparna Chatterjee, on why the benefits of building safe, inclusive workplaces go far beyond work. Edited excerpts from our conversation:

Why Ungender?

We are so used to applying a specific lens to everything around us. From who we allow to be born, to who’s allowed more food and nutrition, to who should laugh how much and where, to what life decisions we are allowed to make – everything is filtered through this lens.

We may feel like we are free citizens, but actually a lot of choices are made for us. For instance someone might be looking at me and deciding on my behalf: "Pallavi needs to go home early and take care of her family."

Women are the sun of the diversity and inclusion solar system. But we need to question the stereotypes that exist for every gender.

There are many places where you can intervene. We wanted to look at the workplace because if someone is able to attain economic independence, many of the other problems will be automatically addressed. We work to promote equitable policies and legal frameworks, but also nudge people to change in small ways, like "ungendering" their language. Hopefully 10 years from now, the world will be different.

Rituparna: I’ve been a media person all my life, so I bring in that outward view to our advocacy. Let me give you a small example. You know the media these days keeps highlighting the problem of manels (panels with only men on them). But it isn’t the media’s job to ask what’s next or offer solutions. That’s where we come in. So we’ve been compiling a list of speakers from underrepresented genders. Why can’t we have more representation in industry events? Are they not internet users? Are they not beneficiaries of businesses? Do they not have stakes in urban planning or infrastructure? What we’ve realised is that the moment you link inclusion and diversity with the idea of business growth, everyone listens.

Shouldn’t inclusion transcend ‘business growth’ and become a human rights issue?

That’s a valid point. There’s always this dilemma whether everything should be reduced to the logic of numbers on a spreadsheet. Usually boardrooms only understand the logic of making more money or saving more money. In practical terms, there is no thesis that says a company must pursue diversity and inclusion. The narrative we think works is, why do you want to put an artificial limitation on your company by restricting your talent profile to a small part of the population? Why not give yourself all the options? Why limit to 10 candidates when you can choose from 50 or 100? The first step is to have companies come to the discussion table, then we can walk the full journey with them.

A photograph of Pallavi Pareek, founder, Ungender
Pallavi Pareek, founder, Ungender.

Also, evolution is a function of the ecosystem you are in. A child doesn’t just grow at home. They are also shaped by their school, what they watch on TV, the friends they play with everyday. Similarly when we meet companies, they might listen to us and agree that they need to do things differently, but when they speak with peers, there’s often this strong pull to go back to the old way.

The psychological benefits of a safe workplace go far beyond work

The workplace is not just your office. The restaurants or malls you visit are also workplaces. Your home is also a workplace for someone. The whole system is full of workplaces, if not yours then someone else’s. There needs to be accountability everywhere. You are right that the thinking about safe workplaces needs to go much further. Safety has to be a conversation across all the spaces a person moves through. Also, safety isn’t about not being raped or murdered. Am I able to grow? Is my full potential allowed to surface? That’s the true measure of safety.

Does prolonged work from home mean employees will stop feeling the need to be different persons at work and at home?

Rituparna: That’s a fascinating question. I had to once pick up my child from the daycare in the middle of the workday at a media company, and when I went back to work I realised the company had a policy of not allowing children on the work floor. So I had to go home. Of course these days on Zoom people say things like, "Oh, it’s so nice to see your kid in the background!" but I feel it’s a bitter pill that most employers are swallowing because they have no option.

Pallavi: I agree. Employers are no longer in control of the space where you work. But the moment employees go back to work, those hardened habits will come back. In fact we had hoped that work from home will help drive home the dignity of work for all kinds of work. But you hear people sniggering about work from home as not real work, as "hobby work", because you aren’t wearing nice clothes and walking out of the house with a laptop bag every morning.

Rituparna: I have a simple question for employers: have you asked your employees if they need financial support for a better Wifi plan? Being able to log into Zoom from one’s laptop is a privilege. Are you assuming that every employee has a personal laptop at their disposal? On a different note, I haven’t seen a single webinar with an interpreter ...

Pallavi: Yeah, employers don’t have to check whether everything’s fine for you at home. But have they checked that at least you have everything you need to do your job?

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