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Shake That Biscuit, Baby!
Text by Parmesh Shahani
Published: Volume 19, Issue 11, November, 2011

Supermodels, art models and business models give Parmesh Shahani a high voltage burst of current and some new role models this festive season....

Oh yeah, that biscuit is being shaken and how! India’s first corporate diversity summit, happening in the swanky Hindustan Unilever Mumbai HQ, has 150 top managers from the country’s leading companies attending. Even five years ago, this would have been hard to imagine. Diversity? Who cared? Yet here I am, watching the crème de la crème of corporate India, shaking their collective biscuit about creating a fairer (and lovelier!) corporate India.

There are different measures of diversity, of course. In the US, race would be important; while in India, caste or gender may be areas that people want to improve. Inclusion is the next step after diversity, and it lies in actually creating policies that will implement the company’s diversity goals. Most of the noteworthy inclusion programmes from India focus on gender, like TATA’s Second Career Programme, which helps women who wish to resurrect careers after taking a break from working, or Google’s Women in Engineering Award, which recognises the achievements of Indian women in computer science, and inspires them to become leaders in creating technology. Predictably, gender gets the lion’s share of attention at this summit, although there are other breakaway sessions (like mine!) that help shift the needle.

I rather enjoy the opening village well-like discussion between consultant Rama Bijapurkar, HUL power-woman Leena Nair and others. Leena states that when the number of women in a team goes up, the level of inclusion, empathy and listening goes up and therefore people who are different feel far safer. So having more women makes the environment better for diversity in general, including for the disabled or other groups. Another interesting thing she mentions is that women tend to make deeper relationships while men build wider networks. Men work through networks. Women tend to be reluctant to ask their friends at work for help. (I used to think that women ask their work friends for help all the time!)

I also have fun attending the session on GenY – or the young workforce of today and tomorrow. Sumita Pillai from Merrill Lynch says that GenY wants the office to be conveniently located, cool looking and for their talent to be constantly appreciated. They don’t really care about what the role is! Boredom and monotony are the big challenges. How does one keep on giving them interesting projects, handholding and mentoring, and not just send them to training sessions blindly? In the course of the session, I learn about HCL’s programme –MAD Ltd – that encourages its GenY employees to Make a Difference and change the world. Such fun…it makes me wish that I were 15 years younger and fresh out of college. I do get to change the world a little bit after my speech at the LBGT (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender) diversity panel. A teary-eyed executive comes up to me and thanks me for changing her viewpoint on the subject.

The day ends with the excellent Connie Wong pacing all over the hall facilitating a play and discussion about global diversity and misconceptions. The setting of her play is an America-USA-Hong Kong conference call between three teams. It is very funny and as the actors discuss their performance with the audience members and argue; I get to see several biases within the audience members. For example, several women feel that the Indian woman actor on stage who is soft-spoken and wears Indian clothes is less serious about her job, even though she is the one who has started the call and is attentive during it. Others feel that it is okay for the American boss to be aggressive and insensitive.

Misconceptions and biases are something that the exciting research duo of Manjima Bhattacharya and Maya Indira Ganesh also address in their seminal report called Erotics: Sex Rights and the Internet. The project had feminist advocates and researchers interviewing women in five countries: Brazil, India, Lebanon, South Africa and the United States. In their essay on ‘Female Internet users in Mumbai’, Maya and Manjima mine through the rich and interesting data generated by their research.

They divide their subjects into different overlapping groups based on their ages. ‘Digital natives’ are the young ones below 25; ‘the bridge’ is women between 24 to 27; ‘guardians’ are those between 26 and 44 and ‘moderns’ are 27 to 54. ‘Digital natives’, they find, are very excited about making friends with strangers online through social networking sites which gives them the freedom to interact with boys and showcase themselves wearing “sexy” clothes, although they are aware that their online behaviour could be policed, in an age of MMS scandals, and could affect their offline freedoms. The moderns, who are older, are more liberal in their views on sexuality, censorship and Internet regulation, but this is franky because they can afford to be so.

The behaviour of men, they realise, isn’t so different from women in terms of what they did online, however, unlike the women interviewed, men talk about using the Internet to “play pranks” on their friends. One of them talks about making a fake profile and pretending to be a girl to fool his male friend into thinking he had found a real girlfriend.

The study also brings out the class bias that the urban English speaking-Internet users have. With access to technologies and the Internet increasing across urban and rural India, the city-dwelling women that they interview, write Maya and Manjima, reveal a “mean-spiritedness about small people’ having access, implying that they derive a certain power from this access. For the middle-class user, connectivity implies global reach, social identity and achievement. But now ‘everyone’s on the Internet.’ There are worries around not knowing if someone you are chatting with online has ‘class’.”

There’s a lot more in the report, on chatting, on matrimonial sites, on mommy blogs. It’s super to read. I love it when women researchers shake their biscuits at men. I don’t think the interviewees would have been half as frank had it been men asking the questions.

I read this report the same week as I read the four-part book series called Digital AlterNatives that my friend, Nishant Shah, who heads the Centre for Internet and Society has come out with. Nishant tells me when we speak that the book series is important because it looks at what it means to be a digital native among countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, geographies that are usually ignored in research on technology. Reading the book in the aftermath of the Anna Hazare Lokpal agitation is interesting as we can easily compare what is happening on the ground in India with what is happening in other parts of the post-Arab Spring world.

One of the high points of the book is that it does not have a singular voice. It is a dialogue between different people. Young people who are digital natives, along with corporates, development agencies, researchers, practitioners and policy actors offer multiple and divergent perspectives on what it means to live with the technologies that we do, and what are the ways in which they shape and change our imagination of the future. It’s fun reading; download a free copy if you can from: http://cis-india.org/digital-natives/blog/dnbook.

Speaking of books, I happen to host the book release of the hip young Pakistani American author Jabeen Akhtar in Mumbai. Jabeen’s book Welcome to Americastan shakes that biscuit and so does she. Firstly, she’s the first vegan Pakistani-American I’ve ever met and her book is totally unlike the rest of the Pakistani fiction brigade. It’s full of diasporic slackers – Sam, the main character, Khalid, her video game playing brother (who’s “30 going on 12”) and the slutty sister Meena…. The siblings are all dating white people and living semi-bored scandalous lives. Still, the pressure of family manages to seep in, though Jabeen tinges it with a lot of humour, like in a stoned-out encounter with a bunch of visiting Pakistani aunties. And if you’re Pakistani-American, you can’t really escape your identity, so there’s a great scene in the aisle of a suburban supermarket where Sam lets it all out. It’s trippy and very filmi and I tell her she should quickly sell the film rights to some big Hollwood studio – might as well strike while the iron is hot.

After our fun Crossword reading, I take Jabeen with me to supermodel and art revolutionary Feroze Gujral’s Outset Mumbai launch at Gallery BMB. Feroze has gotten artist Shilpa Gupta to fill the gallery with huge floating balloons that surround her art. Like everything Feroze does, its power-packed. Feroze is trying to create a collaborative public platform for art?that will raise private funding from supporters and trustees and give the money to public museums, galleries, and art projects. “We want to promote new art at public spaces to build India’s pride,” she tells me. I don’t know how many of the people there will loosen their purse strings, but I’m quite moved after listening to Sotheby’s Maithili Parekh, Khoj’s Pooja Sood and others deliver passionate speeches about building a wider art ecosystem for the country.

Pooja’s actually been tweaking her funding model right from the start. I love how she’s currently fundraising to expand Khoj by selling limited edition photography, art portfolios and a sculpture collection to die for. (Get yours before they run out!) I snap up an Anita Dube, even though I like the Kiran Subbaiah too, but what to do, life is full of choices. On that note, happy Diwali,! Like all these people you’ve read about, I hope that you too, choose to shake your biscuits this New Year and shake up the world (or at least your world!) in the bargain.

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