It is time to end caste discrimination in the tech industry

The caste discrimination case against Cisco should be a wake-up call for Silicon Valley companies.

Visitors walk past Cisco''s booth during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 27, 2017. REUTERS/Paul Hanna
Visitors walk past Cisco's booth during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain on February 27, 2017 [File: Reuters/Paul Hanna]

In a 1916 essay, the architect of India’s constitution, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, wrote: “The caste problem is a vast one […] It is a local problem, but one capable of much wider mischief, for ‘as long as caste in India does exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any social intercourse with outsiders; and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem’.”

In June, a momentous discrimination case in California proved this prediction right. The Department of Fair Employment and Housing launched a lawsuit against Cisco, a multibillion-dollar California-based tech conglomerate, for discriminating against an Indian Dalit engineer over his caste. The engineer, listed as “John Doe” in court filings, says he has been harassed by two of his high-caste Indian-American co-workers and faced retaliation after complaining to the company. 

The caste system affects more than 260 million people worldwide, determining every aspect of their lives from employment to relationships and religion. Dalits sit at the bottom of this system, branded as “untouchable”. They face segregation, exclusion, and violence compounded by a punishing culture of impunity and silence. While caste-based discrimination in the United States is not as widespread and overt as in India, it exists here too.

In the US IT sector and especially the Silicon Valley, where tech companies employ thousands of Indian immigrants and Indian Americans, caste discrimination in the workplace is a daily reality for many. It often begins quite innocuously.

Brahmins, the traditional priestly class who sit atop the Hindu caste hierarchy, may touch the back of a new co-worker of Indian-descent to find out if he is wearing the sacred Brahmin thread – “Upanayana”. If the man has that sacred thread, it means he belongs to their trusted networks.

They may also ask what religion a new co-worker belongs to, or even directly their caste. Their answers may determine how they will be treated in their new workplace.

Caste is deeply embedded in the minds of dominant caste people, and manifests itself in the form of implicit and explicit biases, even when they are in the diaspora. The 2016 Equality Labs’ survey on caste in the US demonstrated this fact clearly.

One in four Dalits who participated in the survey said they faced physical and verbal assault due to their caste in the US. One in three Dalit students reported being discriminated against during their education. A whopping 67 percent of Dalits surveyed reported being treated unfairly at their workplace because of their caste.

Caste is a social currency that can prove highly valuable in the tech industry, where caste privilege easily hides behind ideals of meritocracy. It is so deeply internalised by people of the dominant castes that many of them are not even aware they are actively involved in propagating it. When you ask a dominant caste person in the tech industry how many Dalits there are in their networks compared with other higher caste individuals, for example, they often freeze, realising their unconscious bias.

Caste discrimination in the industry is not restricted to companies either. Research and teaching assistantships in universities, which rely on referrals, also fuel caste discrimination. Dominant caste academics and senior researchers prioritise applicants that belong to their caste networks when hiring.

This pattern replays in most of the top tech companies, where you are more likely to be interviewed for a position if you are referred by a current employee. Individuals from dominant castes – who are in the majority among Indian Americans and Indian immigrants in the US – curate overwhelmingly dominant caste departments.

In stark contrast, my fellow caste-oppressed professors, students, and peers find it difficult to navigate these hostile workplaces. In India, some have even left the field of tech, or have attempted to take their own lives to escape the hostility of universities and workplaces. Today, this sad pattern is being replicated in US universities and companies. 

Even if we circumvent the referral process to get hired, discrimination follows us. Casteist slurs, “jokes” about affirmative action, dismissive comments directed at Dalits – we hear it all. Dalits try to hide their identity, fearing the discovery of caste is enough to lead to demotions and harassment at work. 

In one of the first companies I worked for, my Indian manager pointedly ignored my suggestions in meetings and behaved as if I had never spoken. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, my non-Indian colleagues started to notice my exclusion and began to back me up.

My manager grew increasingly frustrated and said I “better not touch” one of the tools we have been working on, as I was “ill-fated”. I flinched because this was a direct reference to my being from an untouchable caste and a woman.

I decided to find another job. That has led to me having a successful career as a computer scientist where I was able to thrive – as long as I avoided working under a dominant caste Indian manager.

Untouchability is a vicious practice, propagated by dominant castes, so they can distance themselves from Dalits while exploiting our labour. I managed to get myself out of this casteist environment, but many are still suffering. Caste discrimination is a structural problem in the US, as it is in India, and it needs to be dealt with as such.

As the Cisco case progresses, anyone in the tech industry needs to ask: How much talent is suppressed because of caste-based discrimination? What is the rate of attrition, based on the grounds of caste-based discrimination? What do companies lose when their workplaces are hostile to key talent, due to caste-based discrimination? 

The Cisco caste discrimination lawsuit gives us hope that Dalits in the tech industry will one day find justice. We owe this newfound hope to “John Doe”, who instead of suffering in silence chose to fight back. It is not easy to fight against discrimination, particularly in the current environment where the immigration status of many caste-oppressed individuals in the US is precarious.

His courage has already inspired many other individuals from caste-oppressed minorities to speak out, including me. His fight has also made caste a popular discussion topic in the American IT industry. Now we can only wait and see whether the historic case he launched against Cisco is going to inspire other big and small tech companies to notice and address this problem.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.