Why I Chose to Jumpoff “Diversity & Inclusion” Bandwagon!

Teena Khanna   
Director - Talent and L&D "Third Wave Coffee"

Teena Khanna, Director of Talent and L&D at Third Wave Coffee, is an expert in organizational development and learning with two decades of experience, dedicated to building empowered and motivated talent pools for tangible business outcomes.

The theme of bringing the marginalized to the mainstream at work and gender equality has been in vogue for over a decade in India. It is something close to my heart, and I have been giving it a push in whatever ways I can. Championing women at work is central to my work ethos.


However, if I am given a choice to delete one phrase from recent discourses, that would be “Diversity and inclusion.” And I would replace it with “Diversity & Acceptance,” which is currently the only way forward.


After working for nearly two decades, from well-established conglomerates with structured sets and steady cultures to start-ups with buzzing disruptive energy in the air, I have realized that ‘Accepting’ the other is the way to bring subalterns to the centre stage.


The structural disadvantages that women face increase as they move into racial and religious minorities in India. While I and many other strong women I know have led efforts to increase women’s participation and acceptance in various companies, I worked with the most significant barrier I had to surmount was – Acceptance from the people.


The microaggressions – everyday subtle discrimination including comments and actions that demean or dismiss someone based on their gender, race, or other aspects of their identity — have been holding back women, according to a study by McKinsey in 2023. In retail sector shops, for example, women are primarily offered morning shifts as they can’t work beyond certain evening hours, which limits the growth they can achieve compared to their male counterparts. This is similar to top women executives having to over-justify their decisions. The examples are all around us. 


While HR and organisations have made a multitude of efforts to build ecosystems anchored around women, the lack of acceptance by colleagues around them is often visible in small jokes, watercooler conversations and subtle remarks. These signal disrespect and data show that women experience microaggressions at a significantly higher rate than men, according to the study.


Women who experience microaggressions are much less likely to take risks, propose new ideas, or raise concerns, which eventually leads to them quitting their jobs or burning out. This is also fairly visible in fewer women taking steps to rock the boat, ruffle feathers and, over time, would like to be viewed as pleasant to work with. In my coaching experience, I have encountered some of the most subtle forms of judgement for women that come with the use of words like – aggressive/ bossy/ emotional/ impulsive – compared to the same behaviours appreciated in counterparts as risk takers, initiative and maturity. 


While there are industries bringing out initiatives to push gender equality and indexes to measure how well companies are doing on it, the needle hasn’t moved much in decades, especially for those experiencing this on the ground level every day. 


Policies against discrimination and commitments to diversity will only take you so far. Tolerance towards them is not what I dream of; it is an ACCEPTANCE that will allow the subalterns to move up the social and career ladder at an equal pace as others, truly seen as partners in success. And I think it is time we move toward that goal in a quantifiable manner.