Article: Podcast: Raga Olga D'silva on homophobia, performative allyship and tokenism


Podcast: Raga Olga D'silva on homophobia, performative allyship and tokenism

“The organisation may have sensitisation programs and anti-discriminatory laws in place. But if among colleagues there is discrimination, abuse, bullying, slurs, mocking, then you are going to hide,” says Raga Olga D’silva.
Podcast: Raga Olga D'silva on homophobia, performative allyship and tokenism

Recent years have truly intensified the spotlight on DEI, and one segment that has emerged as a key focus area for employers across the globe is the inclusion of LGBT+ talent at the workplace.

To take a deeper look into hiring LGBT+ talent, and unlayering the how of empowering this talent segment to be visible and vocal, People Matters spoke to Raga Olga D’silva in a recent podcast.

A DEI trailblazer, Raga is a staunch advocate of owning and enabling authentic inclusion. With over 25 years of experience in the creative field, Raga has worked in senior positions in advertising in India and New Zealand and has been the recipient of several prestigious awards.

Raga is the author of the recently published book, Untold Lies, a TedX Speaker, and Co-Founder and Director of Speaking Minds, among India's largest international speaker agencies. She is also a host of various shows including Coming Out Stories from India which is on her Youtube channel. 

Named amongst the Top 100 wonder women in advertising, marketing and entertainment in 2021, Raga is also a known advocate in the LGBT+ space.  

Raga was in New Zealand when she decided to come out and identify as a lesbian. Little did she know that a liberal country, one that did have anti-discriminatory laws in place would still not be equipped to accept someone who identified as queer.

After a lifetime of receiving accolades, the disclosure of being LGBT+ exposed her to abuse, harassment and discrimination, at work and home.

“The homophobia that persisted came to the fore through microaggressions and exclusion from team meetings and gatherings,” shared Raga. From being a star to being made to feel small, Raga felt compelled to resign.

Talking about the present day, she noted that things have changed. 

“There is education, awareness, more and more people and voices are out. DEI space in India is changing quite rapidly. There are lots of sensitisation workshops and dialogues. Queer representatives are being invited to share their lived experiences with the workforce and global community at large. More and more people are being made to feel safe. It shows progress and is heartwarming.”

Raga shared that according to a recent survey, only about 10% of the workforce may have representatives from the LGBT+ community, and the people who are out are a smaller percentage. 

“A lot of people remain hidden or are not out yet. There are lots of people who are not out to themselves, their families. At the workplace some of them might not even feel safe to come out.”

Raga also strongly believes that coming out is a privilege. “There are a lot of people who don't have the luxury of coming out because of the homophobia and threats around them. People have been ostracised for coming out, at times even abandoned by their families.”

The dialogues surrounding queer inclusion have certainly witnessed an uptick in recent years. However, a significant gap remains when looking at LGBT+ representation at the workplace. As a Harvard Business Review report calls it, LGBT+ talent remains “hidden”. But why is this talent segment hidden?

“We remain hidden because we don't get selected on account of the conscious and unconscious biases of recruiters,” Raga shared.

Advising recruiters on how to approach hiring queer talent, Raga noted the need to overcome both conscious and unconscious bias. “When we recruit, we look for someone with a similar background, and are tempted to bring that person onboard. We look for commonalities and that is where we can go wrong.”

However, queer talent may choose to remain hidden once hired as well. Another factor forcing LGBT+ talent to remain hidden - Organisational culture. 

“The organisation may have sensitisation programs and anti-discriminatory laws in place. But if the workplace environment is unsafe, despite laws, and if among colleagues there is discrimination, abuse, bullying, slurs, mocking, then you are going to hide.” 

Beyond policies, hiring and trainings,the organisational culture must make way for two essentials to empower queer talent: Visibility and allyship. To enable visibility of queer talent at the workplace, Raga suggested a two-fold approach:

  • Organisation’s role in building a sense of psychological and physical safety
  • Individual’s role in being themselves - which is easier said than done given the prevalent environment for LGBT+ professionals

Before a queer professional or even a queer leader are able to be visible and vocal, it is essential to have an ecosystem that fosters safety for them, and one of the strongest elements of safety is allyship. However, as critical as allyship is in accelerating inclusion, it has two evil twins that need to tackled:

  • Performative allyship
  • Tokenism

“If you want to be an ally then be an ally because you really believe in this cause, and you will stand as supporters no matter what, whether we are in the room or not.” 

Reflecting on the tokenistic engagement that surfaces during Pride Month, Raga said, “I remain gay through the year, not just in June during Pride Month. So don’t just make me a tick in your Pride Month agenda.”

Encouraging organisations to move away from performative allyship, Raga emphasised their role in driving inclusion given individuals spend a lot of time in workplaces. To accelerate authentic LGBT+ inclusion at the workplace, she urged organisations to keep investing in people through dialogues and education. 

While the organisation strives to make the queer community feel safe at the workplace, the organisation must also be able to build a trusting environment for allies to be supportive of the community. “Bring in vocal queer leaders who can share lived experiences. There is nothing like real, lived experiences.” 

Visibility is absolutely crucial to ensuring inclusion on-the-ground, to encourage queer talent to not be hidden anymore. But it depends considerably on the extent of psychological safety LGBT+ individuals feel. They might even come out to their close support system at the workplace, however, Raga cautions here that one should not out a queer colleague without their explicit consent and knowledge.

“Never out someone else. Visibility also means protecting someone else. I may be visible but you cannot make me visible until you have sought my permission.” 

To help organisations tackle queer phobia and accelerate queer inclusion she strongly recommended having inclusion champions, authentic allies and having zero tolerance policies. 

“Make sure that nobody in the organisation can get away with abuse, and anybody who is abused or discriminated against knows what to do. They should have the confidence that when they seek support, they will be listened to - not laughed/mocked at, taken lightly or be told they are over-reacting, too sensitive.” 

“A Stonewall UK report said 85-90% of individuals do not report matters to their organisation because they know no one is going to listen to them. Things will not change until we make the change. Society is us, not anybody else. Think - If not me, who? If not now, when?"

As the world of work strives for meaningful and sustainable change, Raga’s thoughts surely act as a catalyst in empowering individuals to drive that change.

Listen to the complete podcast on Spotify/ Apple.

You can also listen to the podcast here:

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Topics: Diversity, #BreaktheBias

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