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Rashmi Mandloi on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in India

17th May 2021

Rashmi Mandloi, managing partner and head of D&I at BeyonDiversity, shares insights on DEI in India

Rashmi is managing partner at BeyonDiversity, a not for profit organisation providing a platform for creating awareness on inclusive practices to promote inclusive leadership. In this podcast episode, she shares insights on what the DEI priorities are in India and why building an inclusive and diverse workplace culture is now more important than ever. Rashmi will be a panelist in our upcoming webinar on DEI across cultures in India, Russia and Mexico on 27 May 2021. Sign up for it here!

Melanie: Hello and welcome to the Creative Culture Podcast interview series. Today we’re delighted to be speaking to Rashmi Mandloi, Managing Partner and Head of D&I at Beyond Diversity, a non for profit organization that creates awareness on inclusive practices, conducts research and builds advocacy platforms to promote inclusive leadership. Rashmi will share insights on what the D&I priorities are in India and why building an inclusive and diverse workplace culture is now more important than ever. She will also be taking part in our upcoming webinar on diversity and inclusion across cultures on the 27 May 2021. Find out more on our website, creativeculturein.com\insights. So welcome, Rashmi. Thank you very much for being with us today. Perhaps you’d like to tell us a bit more about yourself, your career and your current role.

Rashmi: Thank you, Melanie, and absolute pleasure to be a part of this discussion. I want to start with India. India is a truly diverse country, with language, food and geography changing every 100 kilometres. My father was in the army forces and because of that, he had a transferable job every three years. So I was privileged to live across India in so many different cities and towns and which enabled me to live across the diverse culture and beliefs which were unique to each region. Just to give a context, especially to the European business, India is like a mix of European countries. So if I have lived every three years in Italy or Sweden or Germany, which is vastly different in language and culture from each other, so that was what my life was and that is how my entire understanding of diversity and inclusion came into place at a very young age also attracted me to look at contradictions between the various differences in the country while I tried to navigate in the space of beliefs, religion, social hierarchies and privileges.

Melanie: Thank you, Rashmi. I can totally relate. Having been the daughter of an expat and growing up in many different countries, it’s a blessing to be able to see all those different cultures at a young age. So could you tell us a bit more about what you’re doing at the moment around diversity and inclusion and perhaps give us a picture of diversity and inclusion in India and what the current priorities are across the country? Rashmi: Yeah. So I have been sort of managing this organization called Beyond Diversity for almost a decade right now, where we do a lot of work around the diversity and inclusion space in the country, at the corporate level as well as at a social level. So there’s a lot of awareness, there’s a lot of workshops taking the entire aspect of inclusion together, working with leaders both at the social space as well as in the corporate space, coaching people. I think that’s what we as an organization end up doing. And the D&I landscape has in fact changed quite a bit in the country over the years. When I started off, I used to be with Deutsche Bank at that point of time, way back in 2005, people didn’t even understand what was the meaning of diversity, inclusion, equity, people did not understand that. And we ended up doing a lot of work, which was very transactional and transient in nature. But I think the understanding has sort of come up very, very clearly in the D&I landscape of the country. Over the last five to six years, people have been able to understand the entire aspect of various differences and how we could actually get people with differences together, include them to get their views and their views to make a good whole and also to talk about inclusion in the truest sense. So that’s what has been happening in the diversity landscape. And me with our organization have been trying to sort of bridge that gap between the people in the country with organizations, with the society, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last ten years. Melanie: Great. I bet that the concept of diversity is very well understood, as you were mentioning, given how diverse the country is. But perhaps inclusion and equity are the two elements to work on, right?

Rashmi: Yes, exactly. So it’s nice to see that people are now not talking about bringing in diversity, but also looking at saying that, okay, diversity is there, we understand that. And India is a diverse country. It’s a born diverse country. Now, how do we end up sort of fitting all of them together? How do we get the puzzle together so that it benefits all of us together? Absolutely. What strands of diversity, equity and inclusion do you feel are the most present in India, looking at gender, disability, ethnicity, etc. So over my experience over the last ten years, of course, people started understanding gender more than anything else. And gender itself was always I mean, it still is. The numbers are quite horrible in terms of participation of women in the workforce. The major concept of organizations, when they actually started talking to us, like consulting organizations around the DEI, it was always and at some times right now is around gender. But lately I think there has been a lot more conversation, and I can see the change which has started happening since 2015 onwards, where they have started talking more from a point of inclusion, and they have started thinking of different kinds of differences as well, not just gender. So we’re talking about disability in a large way. We’re talking about LGBT as a community, which we need to start taking notice of. There’s a lot of work around transgender rights which are happening. So that gives me a lot of positivity to think about the country taking a good journey towards D&I.

Melanie: Sure. And are there topics that are still unspoken of or taboo?

Rashmi: There are a couple of topics if we end up talking about, say, from a caste perspective or from a religion perspective, because these could also end up becoming very political, but inherently it is there in the country. Since time immemorial, the car system has been there since India came into being. And because the way India with the history of India, which came in, and there were various kinds of people who came into India, the British who came in 300 years, 400 years back, or the Mughals, who had come in, they all got their own aspect of culture, entire aspect of thinking around societal norms and behaviour. And that inherently is there in the country. And it has come out being a totally different kind of value and an attitude that any kind of an Indian sort of believes in. But in terms of the caste system, the religion, everybody is very close to those ideas. And a couple of those things people do not want to talk about. In a couple of places in big cities, you will say, oh, there is no caste system happening, but you go into a little bit of delayering it. There are a lot of micro inequities which end up happening which could be sort of connected to caste, but people do not talk about it. So there are a lot of things which are also shoved under the carpet. There are a lot of things which are out there which people talk about. But, yeah, I think it’s a journey that we all need to go towards.

Melanie: And have you found that COVID has changed the conversation around DEI in India? Obviously, in Western countries, we’ve seen a lot of movements like Black Lives Matter grow in importance. And what does that mean for the future in India?

Rashmi: Absolutely. So as we speak, COVID is ravaging the country in its second phase and it’s playing out in different ways around regionalism, around casteism, and also around access and privilege. So on a macro level, also, there are various States. And I said India is a mixture of diverse States, so there are various States fighting for their people. So in a whole, they’ve actually become very clannish. So there’s this oxygen politics happening, because if you see in Delhi, which is the capital of the country, they do not have too many industries around. So there is a shortage of oxygen and oxygen has to be procured from other States. But now, because of the COVID cases rising there as well, there is this entire clannish behaviour saying, oh, but our people need it and we cannot sort of give that oxygen to other States. So what I can see from a very macro perspective is that people are trying to save their own and immediate environment as compared to others. And this clannish behaviour which is being seen across the world, actually, and it’s coming out even more stonkingly. Last year we saw the migration and the exodus of laborers on foot from big cities because we suddenly had a lockdown at that point of time. From a diversity perspective that I was thinking about, it was all about a matter of survival. So people were fighting for survival. They’re fighting because they did not have a job. There was an economic downturn. So the entire aspect was not about running away or fighting the virus, it was about fighting the economic system because I wanted to sort of keep my family safe and sound. I wanted to give food to my family. So that also is a very stark diversity game, which was being played because you had these people in the white collar workers who are sitting in cities who were working from home as compared to people because there was a lockdown, there were no trains, the air waves were closed. So people were walking 4000 kilometres because they wanted to go back to their own villages because at least they thought that they will get food there, which they thought they will not get in the city because there was no job. So quite a lot of diversity perspectives I could see from this COVID for sure, and also the intersectionality that could also come out of it. So I could be a woman uneducated in a village from a low caste. And my story would be vastly different from a woman who’s sitting in a city, walking in a multinational organization, having employer support and also power to her decision making. So there are various aspects of diversity which are playing out right now from a D&I perspective, especially around COVID.

Melanie: Yeah. I guess this raises the need to add the “E” for equity in diversity and inclusion, right? Because it’s a lot of equity sort of subjects that have come to the fore during coveted. Do you have examples of innovative D&I initiatives driven in India by local businesses over the past few years?

Rashmi: So they’ve done a lot of things in their own way. Of course, there’s a lot more around gender, which was being played out. And I don’t want to talk about the various innovative people talking about training, coaching, et cetera, et cetera, which is happening, which is a regular thing. A couple of these local organizations, what they have done is also sort of working around the communities. So there is this entire aspect of making the community more stronger for that particular individual to work in, so making that infrastructure right for them to thrive. So for one example, there was this one FMCG company, a big FMCG company. They have the distributors across various smaller towns and cities in India and they were hiring a lot of women there in their teams to go and kind of do a lot of sales management kind of work there. And they realized that there was a lot of attrition of women happening in that particular organization in those areas. So they did a little bit of research to understand why there was so much petitioning of women happening, because they wanted women in those jobs because it was primarily again trying to get agriculture produced to this particular company. So they wanted more women to go to the villagers, to the women folk who were working on the fields. And there were a lot of women who work on the fields, especially in the northern part of the country, and they realized that work was not an issue for the women. What they were lacking was that they did not have a restroom where they could possibly go and relieve themselves. There was a little aspect of security which they were not getting, and that was the reason why women were fighting from this organization. The management of the organization at that point of time, I was consulting with the organization, they actually said, okay, we will take out revenues from our company and took a business decision of making mobile toilets across those various villages and cities. And they also sort of invested in sort of working around the safety and security of those women who are working in that base. So I thought that was a very good example of not just looking at saying, oh, we are trying to hire women or we have some maternity policy, but actually going in and actually helping women to thrive and succeed. I thought that was a good example.

Melanie: It’s a really good and inspiring example. To wrap up, would you like to share? Perhaps some do’s and don’ts for global organizations trying to establish themselves in India and who want to be authentic to their values, but yet culturally sensitive and inclusive, both with their teams internally, but also with external stakeholders.

Rashmi: Yes. So I would like to go with the do’s first. So I would say that if you are a global organization and a brand, the thing that you definitely need to do is walk the talk and show empathy to the situation. The second thing is you might be a global brand in an organization, but always have a localized approach on policies and practices if things might have worked in your current country, but it might not work in India. And as a D&I expert, I’ve seen that rolling out in various ways. So always walk the talk and always have a localized approach. That would be my do’s. My don’ts would be to assume that one local approach that you’re working in one part of the country in India will work in a different part of the country. Always remember that India is very diverse. So what might work in the Northern part of the country might not work in the Western part of the country or in the Eastern part of the country. So don’t go with one size fit for all India approach. And secondly, empathize with people and the situations, keeping in mind the cultural, religious and social context. So don’t just empathize saying that, oh, I understand this situation, but always qualify it within a cultural context and religious context and a social context. I think that would be my two bits of advice to the organizations.

Melanie: Thank you Rashmi. I like the idea of localizing with granularity and not just looking at the culture as a whole but also looking at the subcultures in the country. Is there anything that we haven’t covered today that you would like to add?

Rashmi: So I do look forward to having this conversation with people from other countries out there which you all are setting it up for us. It will be interesting to your diverse perspective of what is happening in other geographies and also learn from each other. So I do look forward to being a part of that conversation and I also look forward to people joining us into this conversation. So thank you for putting this together.

Melanie: Absolutely. I very much look forward to it as well. Rashmi thank you so much Rashmi for your time today. It’s been really interesting and for everybody else thank you for listening. We hope you enjoyed this episode. You can find more podcast episodes by visiting our SoundCloud or website creativecultureint.com under our insight section. Make culture work for you.

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