Welcome to Part 1 of our June 2023 Inspirational Interview with Aparna Mittal, founder and proprietor of Samāna Centre for Gender, Policy and Law in India.
Aparna Mittal is a leading Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Advisor and corporate lawyer with over 18 years of experience. The Samāna Centre for Gender, Policy and Law (Samāna or SCGPL) is a global consultancy focussed on equality and inclusion for all segments of diversity, and with a specialisation in gender and LGBTQ inclusion. Aparna brings a unique perspective of multi-themed advisory work spanning across workplace diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI); impact investing, environmental, social, and governance (ESG); and anti-discrimination/harassment (including anti-sexual harassment) frameworks.
Part two of Aparna’s interview will be published 5 June 2023.
All photos are courtesy of Samāna Centre for Gender, Policy and Law.
1. How and why did you join the movement to end violence against women (VAW)?
As you know, prior to setting up Samāna in 2018, I was Partner – Corporate Law/ Mergers & Acquisitions / Private Equity, with India’s leading Tier I corporate law firms. While working at a law firm for over a decade, advising leading clients on a range of commercial issues and cross-border mergers and acquisitions, I often got a bird’s eye view of the entire business, including in relation to issues of corporate governance and employment-related issues such as (lack of) workplace inclusion and safety. This always used to create a lot of dissonance in my mind, because some of these were leading brands and clients, and one would expect that their internal processes would be progressive, inclusive, and robust enough to deter any acts of workplace discrimination, exclusion, or harassment, especially with respect to minority communities at the workplace.
There was, at that time, very little recognition of the broader legal, social, human, and business case for DEI and safety at corporate workplaces as part of business operations. After my decade-plus stint with law firms, I was keen to explore the social impact space and work with businesses to help them understand DEI and improve their systems, policies and environment for all – especially minority communities, including women, the LGBTQ community, persons with disability, ethnic, religious, and caste-based minorities, to name a few.
2. The Samāna Centre for Gender, Policy and Law (SCGPL) was founded in 2018 as a leading consultancy that focusses on equality, diversity, equity and inclusion. How did SCGPL come to be founded?
I left my partnership at the law firm because I believed I could create significant social impact using my extensive experience and skills by setting up a unique, unprecedented, first of its kind, one-stop, B2B consultancy with multi-thematic and cross-sectoral capabilities that could advise clients (companies, nonprofits, government entities and all others as well) on not just the “why” but also the “how to” of diversity, equity, inclusion, and workplace safety.
This is how the idea of Samāna Centre was born in 2018 and how I commenced my formal professional journey on issues related to institutional discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and other minority communities.
3. One of SCGPL’s key programmes is tackling sexual harassment in the workplace in India. Could you give us an overview of how SCGPL’s anti-sexual harassment programme works?
This is one of the most extensive areas of our practice and work.
Our work ranges from creating progressive and robust policies (and processes) for clients, to curating and conducting a wide range of workshops to create awareness, allyship and responsibility for workplace safety and prevention and redressal of sexual harassment at the workplace, both for employees and management teams and the internal committees to be set up (under Indian law) at each company to inquire into complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace.
Our workshops are live, instructor-led sessions, aimed at empowering and educating persons from all genders. They are highly customised to the business sector (and its realities), the size and stage of growth of the organisation, and the educational level and cadres of the participants. In fact, we were the first in India to introduce these workshops, not just in English and Hindi, but multiple vernacular languages, such as Kannada, Telegu, Tamil, Marathi, and Bengali, to name a few.
Over the past five years, we have led the advisory and training work for hundreds of companies and organisations across the spectrum, be it large multi-billion dollar conglomerates; multinational corporations (MNCs); domestic companies; large, midsized, or micro companies; even startups, nonprofits, and educational institutions.
4. VAW is just one aspect of SCGPL’s work which encompasses a wide range of issues affecting women’s safety, equality, and empowerment in India. How does SCGPL’s wider work influence the way that you approach the issue of workplace sexual harassment?
As I envisioned it, the broader theme or pivot is equality and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Workplace safety and sexual harassment prevention and redressal is a subset of that larger umbrella.
Interventions on DEI are focused on: challenging a host of unconscious biases and negative stereotypes against persons including women; institutionalising equal opportunity and dignity at work; making policies and processes equitable from a gender lens; and, bearing in mind the impact of intersectionality, ensuring women remain a large part of the workforce across levels. We want to make sure women have a seat and a voice at the table, that women across cadres are empowered enough to speak up, and, especially, that women are not seen as dispensable, second-class citizens at work. This larger overview of the problem and comprehensive interventions to change mindsets and push for real progressive growth, both qualitatively and quantitatively, also greatly help address the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace.
More so, since our work on DEI seeks to impact all genders and span across the spectrum of sexual orientation, we bring this same broader perspective to issues of workplace safety, prevention and redressal of sexual harassment for all, so that all persons–irrespective of gender and sexual orientation–are provided a safe and dignified workplace, and each person understands the critical role they play in creating safety and dignity for all at the workplace.
5. What would be your advice to anti-violence against women activists – especially female lawyers – in other parts of the world who wish to adopt SCGPL’s approach to preventing, prohibiting, and redressing workplace sexual harassment in their country?
First, I would like to say that I am deeply inspired by many brilliant professionals and citizens across the globe who have (and continue to) work tirelessly, each in their own unique ways, on such matters of critical importance.
My suggestion would be to broaden the conversation to include all genders and to empower all genders and not only women. For example, members of the LGBTQ community and men also, unfortunately, face sexual harassment and negative stereotyping at work.
Our approach as advisors, reformists, consultants, policy makers, and advocates needs to go beyond the gender binary, and recognise that every person in the work ecosystem (irrespective of designation, age, educational degree, tenure, gender, sexual orientation) can play a big role in changing the culture of the organisation, play the role of strong and vocal allies for the cause, and help all others feel welcome, dignified, and safe. We must work to improve the situation for all. Only then will we be able to get more collaboration and buy-in from everyone, as they would then see themselves as key stakeholders and not just the “other gender” that needs reform.