Rainbows that don't wash away
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Rainbows that don't wash away

While Pride Month needs corporate support, some firms are signalling their backing in order to reap a profit bonanza

A crowd displays a large rainbow banner during Bangkok Pride Parade 2023. Varuth Hirunyatheb
A crowd displays a large rainbow banner during Bangkok Pride Parade 2023. Varuth Hirunyatheb

In the streets of many cities around the world, rainbow flags billow throughout June as a celebration of Pride Month, which symbolises the struggle for civil rights and the ongoing pursuit of equal rights for LGBTQIA+ people.

During Pride Month, brands and companies often show their support by temporarily adding rainbows to their logos or changing their profile pictures to feature a rainbow graphic.

But when June comes to an end, many of these displays vanish, leading some onlookers to wonder whether corporations actually understand the importance of Pride Month, and whether they are genuinely supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community. Do these companies really care about gender equality and accept LGBTQIA+ rights in the workplace? Or are they participating in the events in an effort to make the company look good?

Rainbow washing

Vitaya Saeng-Aroon, director of Diversity in Thailand, a non-profit advocacy group focusing on diversity issues in the workplace, said "rainbow washing" is simply a marketing approach. Brands use Pride Month as a way to attract more sales by capitalising on the calls to support and accept the LGBTQIA+ community.

Corporations may launch merchandise adorned with the rainbow flag, or publicly declare the company supports the LGBTQIA+ community.

"But when considering the actual workplace environment and policies of the company, sometimes there is no real support provided to the community," said Mr Vitaya, also the founder of the Bangkok Gay Men's Chorus.

"I think this has already happened in Thailand."

With much media and public attention generated during the Pride parade, more brands have jumped on the rainbow bandwagon for promotion, he said.

Chumaporn Taengkliang, an LGBTQIA+ activist and co-founder of Bangkok Pride parade, said rainbow washing is a global phenomenon, in part because the LGBTQIA+ movement receives a lot of public attention, which makes various brands keen to connect the movement to their marketing campaigns.

"Some companies focus only on selling their own products and neglect the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights that we have been fighting for," said Ms Chumaporn.

DEI policies

Organisations can propel gender equality rights through their policies, said Mr Vitaya.

He said some multinational companies have operating policies that are consistent with the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

According to advocates, DEI represents an organisational framework that seeks to promote the fair treatment and full participation of all people, particularly groups who have historically been underrepresented or subject to discrimination based on identity or disability.

Mr Vitaya said even though many multinationals have a DEI policy in place, the policy may be implemented differently in each country.

In Thailand, some companies have started to adopt DEI policies, but they have not yet been fully implemented, he said.

Some companies have organised activities to create awareness about issues related to LGBTQIA+, which may create an ambience that suggests the company is open to all genders, said Mr Vitaya.

Yet such activities are often not ongoing, which means there is a failure to create a longer-term understanding of LGBTQIA+ rights-related issues, which should be the case, he said.

"Some executives may say: 'We allow our employees to dress according to their sexual orientation. We do not exclude LGBT people'," said Mr Vitaya.

"This kind of communication does reflect the values of LGBT people, but the DEI principles are not properly applied."

Mr Vitaya says rainbow washing is simply a marketing approach. Brands use Pride Month as a way to capitalise financially on the calls for support and acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Equal treatment

He said companies should reconsider their internal working processes, starting with the human resources department.

Companies should have a policy that guarantees gender equality in terms of recruitment. For example, if a person identifying as transgender applies for a job, they must not be discriminated against based on gender, said Mr Vitaya.

When hiring LGBTQIA+ individuals, a company must build confidence and provide a supportive culture that recognises everyone should be treated equally and be free from violence, harassment, bullying or unfair treatment of any kind, he said.

"Companies must ensure all employees have the right to grow in their careers and that gender is not a determining factor in performance evaluation," Mr Vitaya said.

In addition, he said companies must protect employees' rights outside of the workplace by communicating with stakeholders to understand the company's policies regarding gender equality.

Mr Vitaya said companies must provide LGBTQIA+ employees with the same benefits and welfare as heterosexuals, reinstating these benefits to LGBTQIA+ employees if they have been denied them for a long time.

"I believe if a company makes its employees happy and has a positive culture, it can retain them for a long time, which will save on hiring costs," he said.

Step by step

Mr Vitaya said the private sector is adjusting the working environment to be welcoming for all genders, which provides a good starting point.

The adoption of DEI policies will begin with large listed companies, followed by non-listed companies and government agencies responsible for human rights, he said.

However, Mr Vitaya said many agencies will likely be slow to adapt, such as the Defence Ministry.

He said the government is focused on pushing forward the same-sex marriage bill because it has the potential to improve the country's economy through increased spending on wedding-related services and tourism.

"The legalisation of same-sex marriage in the country is just the first step on a long journey, as there are many social issues waiting to be resolved, such as subordinate legislation to allow people to use gender-neutral pronouns," said Mr Vitaya.

Ms Chumaporn says rainbow washing is a global phenomenon.

Long-term plans

Companies should be clear and consistent in their plans to support LGBTQIA+ people, he said.

Such plans should embrace gender diversity, indicate the social movements the company will support, as well as the likely impact and outcome, said Mr Vitaya.

In addition, the plan should include specifics on projects, action plans, activities and related stakeholders, encompassing events year-round, not just a 30-day campaign such as Pride Month, he said.

Mr Vitaya said pushing the agenda related to LGBTQIA+ must be a collaborative effort between the private sector, civil organisations and relevant government agencies such as the Interior, Commerce and Foreign Affairs ministries -- not only the Tourism and Sports Ministry.

Time required

With Pride Month gaining greater exposure, this could make efforts by civil society organisations and large corporations more challenging, said Ms Chumaporn, who is also a spokesperson for the extraordinary committee for the same-sex marriage bill.

The Bangkok Pride event has policies that state companies wishing to participate in the Pride parade or related events must have internal policies that support gender diversity.

Moreover, she said there must not be workplace discrimination at sponsors, nor censoring of issues the community wishes to address, such as sex workers.

If a company wants to join the event, it must accept these policies first, said Ms Chumaporn.

"Private companies want to celebrate Pride Month, while civil society needs corporate resources to make our voices louder. This makes us work to find a common ground," she said.

Mr Vitaya said some companies joining the parade are legitimate supporters of the cause.

"Some companies in Thailand, such as multinational subsidiaries, are only beginning to adopt the concept of embracing diversity in the workplace. We, as a community, have to give them more time," he said.

As the private sector starts to talk about advancing LGBTQIA+ rights and inclusion, society is becoming aware of each company's philosophy towards society, said Mr Vitaya.

"Many companies have announced support for gender diversity, but do they genuinely support the LGBTQIA+ community, or are they just rainbow washing?" he said.

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