Silicon Valley’s diversity problems are not hidden, with white males occupying prominent positions. However, there is a hidden aspect of diversity that corporate America is beginning to feel: caste. On June 30, 2020, for the first time in the history of the United States, American multinational company, Cisco Systems Inc., was sued on its soil for caste discrimination by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). Under America’s Civil Rights Act, DFEH sued Cisco for caste discrimination alleging that two of its highest caste (Brahmin) employees denied professional opportunities, monetary benefits, and promotions to a Dalit employee (lowest caste, better known as untouchables).
The case against Cisco is only a tip of the iceberg. In 2018, Equality Labs, a South Asian technology organization dedicated to ending caste apartheid, released the first-of-its-kind report on the role of caste in the US. The report highlighted that 25 percent of Dalits faced verbal or physical assault, and approximately 67 percent of Dalits were mistreated at their workplaces. In August 2020, an employee (of an intermediate caste) at HCL America, the US unit of the Indian information technology major HCL Technologies, alleged that he was discriminated against because of his caste and filed a lawsuit against the company. In September 2020, NTTData Corporation, a Japanese multinational, had to take action against an employee in its US office for casteist remarks. In April 2021, the workers’ union of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google LLC, also acknowledged that caste-oppressed workers faced barriers in the technology industry. In short, caste discrimination has become a global phenomenon and gives rise to the question of how caste travels in relatively egalitarian countries like the US.
Workplaces become the places where caste practices manifest.
How does this happen? French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is helpful in understanding how caste and caste practices travel thousands of miles, affecting businesses as well as millions outside south Asia, where caste is predominantly observed. Habitus, according to Bourdieu, refers to how individuals see and respond to the social world around them. Habitus is the internalized socialized norms or tendencies that guide our behavior. It consists of socially established behaviors and dispositions that individuals emulate as they grow, and these norms that we unconsciously acquire through socialization influence us to act in specific ways. Social structures shape the way we behave, think or act. Habitus organizes us in certain predispositions and tendencies.
The caste system places people, based on their birth, in a graded hierarchy. It presupposes positions of different social ranks and assigns rules for and expectations from each one. Prescription of occupations, and norms of social and family life, are two main ways in which caste influences socioeconomic outcomes. Put simply, caste position dictates what one should do, what kind of names they should have, who they should marry, what ceremonies, festivals, and rituals they should follow, how they should behave with others, and their conduct in general, including what they can own and wear. As these are ingrained as stereotypes and social/cultural norms, they become part of the habitus; thus, most individuals practice these without knowing, let alone questioning them or thinking about their actions.
The habitus helps people to socialize, interact, and make decisions, such that caste influences friendships to marriages to business decisions. About 90 percent of marriages in India still take place within the caste boundaries, and about 70 percent of Indians have most or all of their friends within the same caste. In hiring, caste plays a major role and in business mergers and alliances, caste remains a prominent factor. At the same time, discrimination and exclusion of lower castes also occur because they are deemed inferior and unworthy—all because of the habitus. For example, recently, an instructor on Unacademy, India’s largest learning platform, taught in an online session that “tribals (i.e., indigenous people) do not have brains.”
The higher status of top castes gives people of higher castes a wider acceptance and greater access to resources and opportunities, while the lower status of bottom castes puts them in multiple disadvantages, such that lower castes remain multidimensionally poor. The social and cultural dominance of higher castes and institutional discrimination set the norms of society that everyone has to follow. Such dominance of higher castes has led to stereotyping of lower castes as those without merit and of Brahmins as those with genetic superiority.
While socialization develops habitus, habitus alone is not sufficient to generate practices. For Bourdieu, capital (economic, social, cultural, and symbolic) plays a part. Using these different forms of capital, higher castes have migrated to the US in large numbers. The caste practices and learned behavior travel along with them as part of their habitus. In fact, the caste practices may become stronger on a foreign soil because, as immigrants in a foreign country, they yearn for their original (somewhat lost) identity and embrace their culture more tightly. As caste played a major role in shaping their habitus, these practices are replicated on a foreign soil in the form of expression of identity, celebrations of culture, formation of friendships, and finding romantic partners.
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The numerical dominance of upper castes became a factor in further developing the habitus related to caste practices and became part of foreign countries. Over 90 percent of migrants from India belong to upper castes, whose population percentage in India is between 20 to 30 percent. Dalits made about 1.5 percent of Indian immigrants in the US, compared to their population share of 20 percent in India. The numerical dominance of upper castes means that the habitus related to India, including for non-Indians, has been defined in the practices of the upper castes—for example yoga, vegetarianism, and rituals in general.
As habitus requires a field or space where individuals can express and reproduce their dispositions, workplaces become the places where caste practices manifest. Unwittingly, businesses and civil society in the US may have facilitated the dominant caste practices through preferential hiring of Indians (in reality, they are hiring only higher castes). As these individuals moved into senior positions, their hiring and other decisions became influenced by caste. Their ways of being became the benchmark against which others are assessed. Further, the promotion of multiculturalism in workplaces and elsewhere resulted in the practices of the higher castes becoming accepted as Indian culture at large, and celebrated.
In contrast to the higher castes who made, and continue to make, the US home for several decades, the lower castes (particularly Dalits) are recent entrants to the US and other Western countries. As caste dictated and developed a different habitus and different types of capital for Dalits, their entry into the US workplaces clashed with the already established culture of the higher castes. For example, lower castes consume meat and do not observe the same festivals and rituals as those of the higher castes. As a result, they began to face discrimination and exclusion.
How can firms stop this? The first step toward stopping caste discrimination is to acknowledge its presence, then developing and implementing anti-discrimination policies. For example, in Cisco’s case, caste was not included in the anti-discrimination policies; hence HR officials did not know how to handle the situation and did not pursue the initial complaints of the Dalit employee. In December 2019, Brandeis University, Massachusetts, included caste in its Non-discrimination and Harassment Policy and stood by it despite severe opposition. Likewise, businesses need to take a firm stand if they want to curb caste discrimination within their boundaries.
Businesses further need to sensitize their employees concerning caste and provide training on caste discrimination along with racism and gender discrimination. Such training can help employees understand what makes caste discrimination and what to do when such complaints arise. Further, diversity hiring practices of corporate America need revisiting so that caste can be taken into account in hiring people from caste societies to achieve better representation of marginalized castes. Not taking caste into account while hiring would only contribute to perpetuating the caste inequalities and discriminations in corporate America. Put differently, inaction and silence would only make the companies complicit in reproducing caste inequalities.
Pardeep Singh Attri is currently pursuing his doctorate in the Department of Economics and Business at the Central European University, Vienna (Austria).
Hari Bapuji is a Professor of Strategic Management and International Business at the University of Melbourne, Australia.