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From social context to business case– the evolution of DEI

Wednesday September 22, 2021, By Janani Sampath

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become a mantra in the workplace for the last couple of decades. The concept, which has a long-standing legacy, is deeply rooted in a civilization like India.

We trace the journey of DEI in the West and India.

The modern history of DEI

The earliest DEI initiative in the West was in the 40s, when the United States passed Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the armed services, allowing anyone to serve and be treated equally. The move is seen as the first DEI initiative in the last century and more. It was also in the same decade that the first modern equal employment legislation was introduced in Congress. In the subsequent decade, the US passed the civil rights legislation that barred discrimination based on gender, color, religion, and age.

An initiative with foresight, it was In the late 80s that a study of economic and demographic trends was commissioned by William Brock, Secretary of Labor, which became the landmark book ‘Workforce 2000 – Work and Workers in the Twenty-First Century. It predicted that more women will enter the workforce, minorities will form a good part of the new entrants, and that immigrants will constitute the largest share of the population and workforce since World War1. These trends got the companies to study the business case of a diverse workforce. Soon, they began measuring it in terms of turnover, retention, productivity, succession planning, public image, revenue/market share, and even stock value.

In the mid-2000s, an investigation of diversity stats in Silicon Valley’s large tech companies began, with only three of them voluntarily disclosing them among the 15, as most didn’t want to divulge their trade secrets. It was not until 2014, that Google came up with its diversity report, becoming the first major tech company to do so.

While the West has made giant strides in DEI, with over 70 percent of them focusing on diversity hiring, a lot more is left to be achieved, especially when it comes to participation in the workforce by ethnic minorities, and women in leadership roles.

The India story

India, which epitomizes diversity, as a cradle for different religions, languages, and cultures, has DEI deeply entrenched in its history as witnessed in the epics.

It is said that the ancient political scientist and economist Chanakya, who assisted emperor Chandragupta Maurya to rise to power, advocated keeping aside work for the vulnerable sections to empower them. He also advised the king to look into the needs of those with disabilities, the aged, and needy women. Ancient India also had transgenders in government and religious roles, while the epics also testify for the roles they played.

India’s recent tryst with DEI can be traced to over two decades ago. One of the factors was the dwindling representation of women in the workforce. In 1990, India’s workforce participation rate for women was 30.3 percent. However, that has fallen considerably over the years to around 20 percent today.

In 2000, Avtar, a pioneer in DEI spaces, saw the necessity to create workspaces that welcome women who have taken a break due to marriage and maternity to ensure that many do not have to drop out due to the same reasons. In the same decade, Avtar carried out the first DEI audit in India, setting a benchmark. In the last two decades, Avtar has had many firsts – like creating a marketplace for second career women to meet potential employers, developing a comprehensive set of career enablers,  re-skilling, up-skilling, and counseling women,  building career intentionality amongst underprivileged girl children, etc.

While the US has had the gender parity champion, Working Mother, identifying companies that espoused the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion by starting the Best Companies for Women list in 1985, India got its list in 2016 with Avtar’s Best Companies for Women in India (BCWI), conducting the exercise along with Working Mother. Since then, the gender analytics exercise has seen five successful editions.

The impact of Avtar’s work is evident with over 50% of initiatives and policies instituted by BCWI companies offering equitable support to navigate the demands of marriage and motherhood. Organizations have become cognizant of the correlation between marriage and women’s employment. Different aspects of DEI are woven into policies enabling easy transition for retaining high-potential talent and providing them with the support required during phases in a woman’s life like the maternity period. Apart from these, companies are focusing on mentorship, career sponsorship, and training.

The DEI journey in India has had accelerators through legislation. The PoSH Act, 2013, creates a mechanism for redressing complaints regarding sexual harassment at the workplace– for both organized and unorganized sectors. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD), 2016, along with the Rules of implementation, protects the population from discrimination, enabling them to access employment opportunities and improve societal participation. More recently, in 2018, the reading down of the colonial Sec 377, decriminalizing homosexuality, has opened vistas of hope for LGBTQ+ in the workplace.

In India, DEI has gathered momentum in the last few years, pushed the doors, finding its way to the boardroom and across sectors like IT, Banking and Finance Services Industry, Pharma, E-commerce, etc. At a crucial point now, the momentum for DEI has to be consistent and uniform to see a drastic transformation by accommodating more women, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ, in the workforce.

Author Profile

Janani Sampath
Janani Sampath
With close to 15 years of experience in journalism across beats in multiple mediums, Janani Sampath is senior content writer and assistant editor, Diversity Digest.
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