Taming the invisible elephant in offices

Last Updated : 07 June 2022, 04:10 IST
Last Updated : 07 June 2022, 04:10 IST

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Tech giant Google was in news recently over a talk scheduled by US-based Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan. An in-depth report by The Washington Post revealed that Google’s employees sent out mass emails through the company intranet calling the activist, who is also the Executive Director of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organisation, as “Hindu-phobic” and “anti-Hindu”. Google allegedly buckled under the pressure and cancelled Thenmozhi’s talk which was a part of the company’s Diversity Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) program for employee sensitisation.

Before this, the 2020 lawsuit filed by the State of California against Cisco brought to international attention the pervasive, yet unacknowledged casteism amongst Indians in companies in the Silicon Valley.

Many researchers, activists and HR professionals reveal that caste-related stigma is much worse in India and remains rampant across the Indian corporate sector. Caste and Casteism is one of the most complex topics when discussing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, but one that cannot be ignored.

The caste system has its roots in ancient history. Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Castes (OBC) represent all the underprivileged and economically backward castes in India.

For thousands of years, the upper classes enjoyed many privileges while the SCs and STs lacked access to education, jobs, intellectual advancement and land ownership among other social privileges.

In an attempt to correct the injustice, India banned caste discrimination in the Constitution. In the 1970s, India introduced a quota system for people belonging to SCs and SCs in government jobs and the education system. This has yielded a marginal representation for them in some of the levels.

Caste-blindness at work

The industry associations provide data regarding affirmative action taken by their member companies on a quarterly basis to the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion. An RTI filed by Sarah Khan which accessed this data revealed that out of 17,788 member companies, only 19% had adopted the ‘voluntary code of conduct for affirmative action’, highlighting the reluctance of the private sector to level the playing field with regard to caste. Affirmative action policies have not yet filtered into the corporate sector.

The research done by D Ajit, Han Donker and Ravi Saxena of the University of Northern British Columbia, Canada, profiled board members of the top 1,000 private and state-owned Indian firms. They found that an overwhelming 93% of the board members belonged to the forward castes. OBCs accounted for just 3.8% of the directors, while SCs and STs accounted for only 3.5% of the directors.

Affinity bias

Thomas Isaac, Director of Intuit Research, reasons, “In a scenario where the people in decision-making roles are overwhelmingly from upper castes, there are likely to be unconscious biases that recruiters and managers have that can hardly be ignored. When organisations are staffed with people from the upper castes, they will unconsciously implement practices to bring in more people like them. Affinity bias is bound to play a role in hiring and promotional practices”.

“Boards dominated by one caste also tend to have a CEO from the same caste,” he adds.

A recently published research paper from IIM-Bengaluru titled Firms Of A Feather Merge Together: Cultural Proximity And Firms Outcome shows that shared caste identities between two firm directors increase the likelihood of them entering into merger-and-acquisition deals.

While many would deny the existence of caste-based discrimination in the workplace, the reality is that it exists and manifests itself in many forms. A 2007 study by Surinder S Jodhka and Katherine Newman titled In the Name of Globalisation Meritocracy, Productivity and the Hidden Language of Caste
observed that recruiting managers believed that people from the upper castes are more suitable for jobs in elite companies. Caste identifiers, such as surnames, skin colour, dress sense, communication skills, and the residential area one lives in, are often used unconsciously to determine the caste a person belongs to.

Rukmini Iyer, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) professional with vast experience, says, “A lot of Indian surnames give away the caste identity and that does come in the way of some candidates not being preferred over others for work opportunities.”

Experiment on casteism

Rukmini's statement is borne out by the study done in 2009 by Sukhdeo Thorat, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Paul Attewell, Professor of Sociology at the University of New York, who conducted an experiment on caste-based hiring in India.

The two professors responded to a number of Indian private-sector job ads by sending out three resumes for each job that called for a university degree. The applicants, all-male, had similar educational qualifications and experiences, but one had a recognisable upper-caste Hindu name, another a Muslim name, and the third had a distinct Dalit name. The study found that for every 10 upper-caste Hindu applicants who received an interview call, only six Dalits and three Muslims got an interview call.

The preconceived notion that Dalits and SC/STs do not have the adequate exposure and training required to fit into a corporate job, especially when it comes to senior-level roles, is behind this.

Additionally, in an environment that celebrates extroversion and superior English-speaking skills, SC/ST and Dalits are not considered to display the same level of confidence as their upper-caste colleagues and peers. “This is a function of access to education during their childhood years, which puts them at a disadvantage,” says Thomas.

Dealing with microaggressions

“Caste-based micro-aggressions are common in the workplace”, says Paulose Varughese, director of a rubber company. “These can range from asking a person a direct question of which caste one is from, to forming perceptions based on the way one is dressed or speaks English.”

Microaggressions are brief, daily verbal, behavioural and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, caste and religion-based slights and insults.

In Corporate India, microaggressions are more caste and religion-based. Caste-based slurs and insults, sometimes not very overt but patronising, have been normalised.

Paulose says, “The problem with the DEI initiatives in Indian companies is that it is all taken from foreign contexts. Because of this, MNCs give more focus to gender and sexuality, and not enough importance to caste.”

“At this point, in corporate India, very few organisations deal with casteism openly. In some organisations with a mature DEI programme, spaces are being created to tackle casteism as an unconscious bias, as well as a conscious one,” says Rukmini Iyer.

“The conditioned liberal narrative is to claim that one is caste-blind, particularly among the so-called upper caste. It is only the ones who the bias works against, who can even notice the privilege that others are blind to,” she adds.

Why is caste diversity important?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emphasise equality of opportunity and reducing inequality of outcomes, the elimination of discrimination in law, policy and social practice, and socio-economic inclusion of all, under the banner ‘to leave nobody behind’. This means that equal opportunities would be provided to all “irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, economic or "other status”, which inherently includes caste.

Maintaining a diverse workforce is imperative for corporates to succeed. Studies have shown that companies with diverse staff are better positioned to meet the needs of diverse clients. A 2020 McKinsey report found that the cash flows of diverse companies are 2.3 times higher than those of companies with a less diverse staff. They also found that diverse companies are 70% more likely to capture new markets than organisations that do not actively recruit and support talent from under-represented groups.

Caste-based losses to companies are similar to those due to a lack of gender and race diversity and this builds a strong business case for corporates to address this burning issue of Casteism proactively.

Conscious hiring practices

“Casteism as an archetype in our collective subconscious will not go away easily unless we create conscious mechanisms to work with it,” she opines.

Paulose says, “There are a number of things companies can do to tackle the issue of caste bias. Caste should be added to the unconscious bias training of corporates. ‘Blind CVs’ without names and photos should be used to minimise discrimination at the hiring stage. Leaders should look out for signs that team members are feeling isolated and employees should be properly educated on caste-based microaggressions and how to recognise and tackle these.”

A lack of role models and mentors is also a common problem amongst under-represented groups. Deepa Agarwal, a DEI specialist based in Chennai, says: “Companies have to provide education and training that can alleviate this mentorship disparity. Companies and Industry sectors that are facing perennial difficulties in recruitment and retention of diverse talent must take extra steps to create mentorship, education, training and professional opportunities that are specifically tailored to underrepresented groups.

Steps to ensure caste diversity

1) Unconscious bias training to include casteism, to sensitise employees.
2) Educating employees on caste-based micro-aggressions.
3) ‘Blind CVs’ without names or photos to ensure caste-based discrimination is minimised at the hiring stage.
4) Ensuring diversity in the interview panel.
5) Training managers to identify and deal with casteist behaviour, and to identify and help employees who are targeted.
6) Assessing promotion and incentive data to see if people from the same caste are being prioritised.
7) Offering education and training for underrepresented groups to overcome the mentorship disparity.
8) Promote equality, openness and belonging among employees, and encourage conversations.
9) Zero tolerance toward caste-based discrimination.

Published 06 June 2022, 14:39 IST

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