Big Tech discovers that India is where the Indians are:
Last year, allegations of caste bias got a public airing some 8,300 miles away from the IIT campuses. On behalf of the Indian Cisco Systems employee who alleged he’d been discriminated against based on his caste, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing brought a suit in San Jose against the company and two other Indian employees. All three were graduates of IIT Bombay.
American law protects workers from disparate treatment based on a handful of characteristics, including race, sex, religion, and disability status. This was the first time, though, that anyone had argued those protections should extend to Dalits. The complaint said that the unnamed employee had faced discrimination by two upper-caste managers since 2015 and that he’d reported one to human resources for outing him as a Dalit and informing colleagues he’d enrolled in the IIT through affirmative action. The employee said the discrimination had continued under the second manager.
Cisco denied the charges. “We have zero tolerance for discrimination and take all complaints of unfair treatment very seriously,” a spokesperson says. “In this case, we thoroughly and fully investigated the employee’s concerns and found that he was treated fairly, highly compensated, and afforded opportunities to work on coveted projects.” In its response to the suit, Cisco made an additional argument: Because caste isn’t a protected category under U.S. civil rights laws, the allegations are immaterial and should be stricken. The court recently denied Cisco’s petition to move the case to arbitration, and the company has filed an appeal.
Advocacy groups in the U.S. have weighed in on both sides. The Hindu American Foundation filed a declaration in support of Cisco, saying that though it vehemently opposes “all forms of prejudice and discrimination,” the state’s case “blatantly violates the rights of Hindu Americans.” Meanwhile, the Ambedkar International Center, a Dalit advocacy group, filed a brief in support of the state, encouraging the court to acknowledge caste discrimination and set a precedent prohibiting it. “American civil rights law has little experience with the Indian caste system, but it is very familiar with the idea of caste: the notion that some people are born to low stations in life in which they are forced to remain,” the motion reads.
The case inspired a flood of tech workers to tell their own stories. A U.S.-based Dalit advocacy group, Equality Labs, told the Washington Post in October that more than 250 tech workers had come forward in the wake of the Cisco suit to report incidents of caste-based harassment. Thirty Dalit engineers, all women, also shared a joint statement with the Post that said they’d experienced caste bias in the U.S. tech sector.
For years the industry has been criticized for doing too little to rectify a culture seen as hostile to women, Black people, and Latinos. In response, companies have held town halls, instituted anti-harassment training, and made very public promises to do better. On caste, though, executives have largely pleaded ignorance. Microsoft is a rare exception: The company, whose CEO, Satya Nadella, is Indian-American, says that it’s received a few complaints of caste bias and that it has more work to do. Google, for its part, says it will investigate any discrimination claims based on caste; it wouldn’t say whether it had received any, and Pichai didn’t respond to Businessweek’s requests for comment.
Another Indian-American executive, Shantanu Narayen, has been CEO at Adobe Inc. since 2007. The company employs hundreds of Indian expats, including more than 100 who graduated from an IIT. In an interview with Bloomberg TV last year, Narayen, a graduate of an engineering school (though not an IIT) in his native Hyderabad, rejected the idea that any of Adobe’s Indian workers might show bias based on caste. What the company “has always stood for and our founders instituted as the way of creating this company is equality for all,” he said. “We have not had any of those issues.”
It would be naive for U.S. companies to assume that Indian hires leave their prejudices on the subcontinent, says Sarit K. Das, a professor of mechanical engineering at IIT Madras who until February was director of IIT Ropar. “Graduates carry this to Amazon or Google or wherever, and the feeling toward the other person is that you didn’t make it like me, you are inferior,” he says.
Ram Kumar, a Dalit alum of IIT Delhi, has worked in the tech industry for more than two decades, with stints at Cisco, Dell, and other companies. When he arrived in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, he found “another mini-India arranged by clusters of Indian hierarchy,” he says. Whereas dominant-caste Indians might see expat communities as sources of professional networking and support, Kumar avoids them. “People will try to segregate you once they find out your caste,” he says. As a matter of self-preservation, “I’ve avoided good opportunities when I see that the CEO or CTO is Indian.”
My favorite is the way Cisco and The Hindu American Foundation have filed suit for the right to discriminate by caste. Just like our Founding Fathers!