Pride is not only about visibility but also advocacy for positive change. In this interview, we have the privilege of hearing from Sukhdeep Singh, a software professional with 13 years of experience in the multimedia domain.
Sukhdeep is a seasoned computer science and engineering expert and a passionate advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Gaylaxy Magazine. This e-magazine provides a platform for the LGBTQ community in India and South Asia to express themselves and address their unique stories and issues.
With his extensive background and firsthand experiences, Sukhdeep offers valuable insights into the meaning of equity, diversity, and inclusion in computer science and engineering, sheds light on the barriers he has encountered throughout his career, and provides recommendations for fostering an inclusive computing community.
What is your definition and meaning of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the context of computer science and engineering?
Computer Science and Engineering is still a very cis-hetero male-dominated space, and I suppose there is an urgent need to break the prevalent bro-culture. I believe we need to reflect upon why that is the case and how this can be mended. We need to look at diversity not just in terms of (female) gender, but also non-binary people, LGBTQ people, racial diversity, disability, etc. We need to look at what can be done to facilitate people from such diverse backgrounds to study computer science and engineering, and how we can lower the entry barriers for them. But equally important is that with this diversity, we make our spaces more inclusive. For that, it is important that we not just teach the students about technical subjects, but also impart knowledge around gender and sexuality, because I feel that in computer science and engineering, all the focus is often on technical knowledge, and we forget that we are still humans who need to navigate this diverse world. So I think it is equally important to teach social justice, gender-sexuality-related topics as well.
What barriers to inclusion have you experienced throughout your career?
In a country like India, homophobia is very prevalent, and it remains so even in tech companies. For me, working in such environments has been extremely difficult. While some companies that I worked in, I have been lucky to have really accepting colleagues, in others, this has not been the case.
In one such company, once a few colleagues of mine got a whiff of my sexuality, they would crack homophobic jokes in front of me, and ask me questions that would make me really uncomfortable. But it was not just limited to these few comments or jokes, the general company culture seemed to be very regressive, with people holding views like “girls cannot code, and should only be hired for testing jobs,” etc. And this was a big tech firm, one of the leading ones in the world. I hated every moment I spent there, and it affected my mental health as well, a lot. I was slowly slipping into depression. I don’t think one can work in such an environment. And it is not like the “HR policies” didn’t have the usual anti-discrimination, equal opportunity, and other nice words. But these are hollow words if you don’t make any effort to ensure they are followed or enforced.
In many companies, the firewall blocks any website or page that mentions words like LGBTQ, gay, sexuality, etc. This does not build any confidence in the mind of a queer person because, in a way, it indirectly tells them that the company forbids you from being open.
Even when some companies say they have a diverse workforce or are inclusive, often the biases ensure that individuals are not given key/leadership positions or are hired only at lower levels. I would again like to reference the company I talked about previously. To show that they are diverse, they might have cited that they have some X% women working with them, and hence they are equal opportunity. But I suppose we need to look more closely at such data. How many of these women were actually developers, how many were testers? How many were in managerial/leadership roles? And does the mismatch reveal anything about the biases that exist in the company? Even when companies cite data to back up their claims about inclusion/diversity, it is important to analyze that data at a finer level. Otherwise, we won’t get the true picture. It is not just a game of statistics for which you hire a certain % of your workforce from diverse communities and pat yourself on achieving your KPIs. If you are to be truly inclusive, you need to ensure that every position/role inside your company has that diversity.
What are 1-2 ways the computing community can work together to prevent these experiences from occurring to future professionals?
What I have seen in my career in the IT field in India is that while companies have clauses related to anti-discrimination, equal opportunity, etc., they make no effort to follow these sincerely. It is very important to have an enabling and inclusive environment where one feels welcomed and comfortable. One may say that you can file an official complaint, but with the amount of micro-aggression and things that an LGBTQ person usually faces or hears from their peers, it becomes impossible to every time file a complaint. People often fight many battles with society and family, and do not have the strength to fight another one, especially if it might cost them their livelihood.
It should be the organization’s responsibility to change its company culture and sensitize its employees around gender and sexuality.
A lack of understanding of others’ experiences may sometimes lead to unintended consequences. What recommendations can you make to the community to help them increase their understanding of your culture and/or background that would help individuals feel more welcomed?
Companies and organizations need to actively invest in making their cultures and policies more LGBTQ inclusive and friendly, and for that, they need to recognize that they may not be aware of the issues and challenges faced by LGBTQ people, and merely adding a few words in their company documents is not going to help achieve that. Today, there are many non-profits and for-profit organizations that organize diversity and inclusion training and gender sensitization workshops. Companies should invite them to hold such training and workshops. There are LGBTQ people who share their life stories in such workshops, which can be very eye-opening. I have been part of such workshops a few times where I have shared my experiences.
Once they have understood some of the challenges, they should sit down and think about what they can do to ensure that such situations do not occur in their own workplace.
Allyship is very important as well in developing a queer-inclusive workplace. An Employee Resource Group can go a long way in that. In this day and age, a lot of resources and materials – books, videos, movies – already exist that people from the computing community should make use of.
Can you share an example from your education or career experiences where diverse voices had, or could have had, a significant impact on a project?
When I was in college, I came out in my final year and was the only out gay student in the entire engineering college. This was back in 2009, and homosexuality was not as widely accepted or discussed in India back then as it is now, and most people lacked any knowledge of what it meant to be gay. My coming out started a lot of discussion in the student community, and many people, for the first time, got educated around gender and sexuality.
Later, in January 2010, when I was in the final semester of my engineering, I started Gaylaxy magazine – an LGBTQ e-magazine for India, with the help and support of a few of my friends. The magazine had a significant readership from my college as well, and became a source of information about LGBTQ issues for a lot of my peers. A few of them have, in recent years, reached out to me to help them establish queer-friendly spaces or groups within the organizations that they work in.
Given the importance of computer science and engineering becoming and being a more diverse and inclusive community, we strive to hear the perspectives of persons from equity-seeking populations. What are 1 or 2 ways such diverse perspectives and experiences can be solicited and heard without making the persons who share them feel tokenized or otherwise uncomfortable?
As I mentioned earlier, holding workshops or training sessions where queer people come and share their life experiences can be a very powerful and effective way of learning about diverse perspectives. Queer People who come to such workshops are often comfortable sharing their life journeys and answering audience questions. Apart from that, there are many documentaries too on queer issues and lives that organizations can screen and which can be a very effective tool for learning about diverse experiences. I have made one documentary on the lives and challenges faced by LGBTQ Sikhs, and it was screened at one of the companies here in India last year during Pride month. Also, these activities and workshops should not be just limited during pride month, but should be held throughout the year.
Learn More about Sukhdeep Singh
Sukhdeep Singh is a software professional with 13 years of experience in the multimedia domain (video codecs (H264, HEVC, VP9), STB and SSAI). He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Gaylaxy Magazine, an e-magazine he founded in 2010 that provides a platform for the LGBTQ community in India and South Asia to express themselves and highlight their stories and issues. The magazine has over 250 contributors and 2000 posts, with an exclusive section in Hindi that remains the only one of its kind online LGBT resource in Hindi. Gaylaxy was awarded the Indiblogger Award 2017 for Gender Equality. His writings have appeared in Huffington Post India, Trikone Magazine (USA), Varta, and Germany-based travel portal Ebab. He is the contributor to the chapter on Sikhism and Homosexuality in the book ‘I Am Divine So Are You’ about Karmic Faiths and Sexuality. He is the director of Sab Rab De Bande (We’re all God’s Children), a documentary on LGBTQ Sikhs. He was awarded the January Marie Lapuz Youth Leadership Award for 2016 by Canada-based Sher Vancouver “because of the significant influence and impact he is having on advancing LGBTQ+ rights in India and South Asia and abroad, not to mention his innovative use of technology on various platforms to create more awareness of LGBTQ+ issues.” He was awarded the Global Diversity and Inclusion Award in 2017 and the 100 Top Global Diversity and Inclusion Leaders in 2018 at the World HRD Congress. He is a fellow of Salzburg Global LGBT Seminar.