Why inclusion policies in the corporate world must talk about caste

While corporate spaces are opening up to discuss gender and sexuality, caste still remains ignored.
Why inclusion policies in the corporate world must talk about caste
Why inclusion policies in the corporate world must talk about caste
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I haven’t been on my Inclusion journey all that long, namely, working actively in the corporate Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) space. In my short journey, I’ve met all sorts of people. Wonderful people doing some amazing things. Who live and breathe Inclusion in everything they do and everything they are. I’ve met people like me, starting out, eager to learn and eager to make a difference.

And then there’s the third kind. People who are either selectively inclusive or don’t quite get the whole picture. I want to talk a little bit about this set of people.

Inclusion can’t be selective

I recently attended a Round Table discussion hosted by a very reputed women’s inclusion group. They’d invited me with a number of other D&I leaders from different organisations.

During the session, one of the slides presented was an Inclusion image where a few attributes like sex and skin colour were highlighted as visible identifiers and a large number of others like sexual orientation, culture, religion, etc. were called invisible identifiers. Right off, I noticed that caste wasn’t listed in the image anywhere and this being India, it plays a big role.

When I asked if caste was being classified under skin colour or culture or was missed entirely, there was some confusion from the presenter.

“No,” she said, “caste is invisible…one can’t discriminate based on caste.”

I said, “No. That’s blatantly not true. We know caste discrimination exists and Dalits aren’t present in the corporate space in significant numbers at all.”

“We don’t know that. Caste is determined by self-declaration and since we don’t have the data, we can’t tell if that’s a problem.”

“Sexual orientation is determined by self-declaration as well, and companies don’t have a lot of Out employees. That doesn’t stop us from talking about the need for LGBTQ Inclusion.”

A senior colleague piped in to say, “Srikant is talking about caste privilege and we do receive privileges by being from certain castes.” To this, someone else added, “I think there’s a problem at the level of educational opportunities itself. Even before we reach corporates.”

In response, the presenter said, “Let’s not talk about privilege. If a meritorious student loses a college seat to an SC/ST student, who’s really got the privilege here?”

Silence followed. My colleague and I looked at each other in disbelief. This was a leader with years of experience in the D&I space, who had presented for more than two hours on male privilege, denying that caste privilege exists and clearly misunderstanding what privilege meant in this space.

Did I take her out of context? I guess we’ll never know. She changed topics saying, “This isn’t the purpose of why we’re here.”

Caste discrimination in the corporate space - Does it exist?

Yes! How is this even a question? In the recent past, I’ve had the good fortune to engage in conversation with Dalit activists and hear about Dalit activism in the news, although personally, I’d never quite thought about it. It was never of any consequence in my life. But as with my gender, religion (in India) and sexual orientation, I have now come to learn that I have another privilege and that is, my caste.

Corporates typically react thus, “Caste can’t be a thing. We’ve never had or heard of anyone look at caste during hiring. The corporate space is above this.” But how sure are we, really?

Hiring – Is it truly objective?

When recruiters or hiring managers look for a candidate, there are a few things that are understood to be pre-requisites:

  1. A strong command of the English language, either spoken or written. Read “strong communication skills”
  2. Degrees from reputed colleges & universities
  3. Confidence in being able to handle oneself with peers, colleagues or clients. This could mean, arguing a stance or point (which takes you back to point 1) or body language that exudes confidence, in handling the interview or written opinions
  4. Attire befitting the “status” of one’s position. Dress appropriately with one’s position
  5. Culture fit

In my opinion, the last two are intangibles that could separate the caste-privileged from those who aren’t. If you’d never seen the inside of a corporate, your ability to handle yourself with confidence is underdeveloped at best. This comes with time and experience. It also doesn’t really impact your day-to-day contribution in a role.

Further, in a country like India, where English fluency is considered an advantage and a strength, its lack is seen as a detriment. If you haven’t had the opportunity or the social network to hone your spoken or written command, it could work against you in recruitment.

“Culture fit”, an umbrella term in which candidates are either seen as fit or not to the organisation’s culture, is based on a range of intangible criteria, that can also be problematic. If the existing organisation is mostly made of the caste-privileged, who bring with them a certain way of working and lifestyle, isn’t it likely that we’d continue to look for people with similar worldviews?

Technology and Inclusion

At a recent conference by Out & Equal in Bengaluru, IBM hosted a panel called Technology for Inclusion, led by Sameep Mehta & Sriram Raghavan, who work on developing Ethical Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems.      

Sameep began the presentation stating that there are 180 different kinds of identified biases. And since AI and Machine Learning, the two latest buzzwords in the world of tech, depend heavily on real-world data to learn and grow, a need exists to ensure that the data they’re being fed is bias-free. For instance, if in an organisation, the AI system is told that the top performing people are from a certain place, age, educational background, skill set, and proficiency, the data tells the AI system that the greatest chance for success is to replicate and source talent that fill these attribute sets. This applies not just to caste but also to gender, economic status, gender identity, etc. If women, Dalits or trans people aren’t in your exceptional performer data set, the AI will choose to ignore them completely.

While people generally look to technology to be the answer to human biases, one must understand that these technologies will reflect the bias of the programmers or the data being fed into it from a biased world.

Corporate Culture

Moving past recruitment and analytics, a few other things are also evident. Whilst on paper, advancement in job roles is based on Key Performance Indicators and numbers, the reality on the ground could be anything but.

Given that a fair degree of social capital must be utilised to get ahead, a few questions arise:

  1. How much does socialising and networking play a part in who moves forward? Do managers spend an equal amount of time socially (outside the office) with every member of their team or is there an affinity bias there?
  2. In workplaces that celebrate festivals like Deepavali and Dasara with enthusiasm, how many of us even know of festivals that are considered important like Dalit people or even holidays like Ambedkar Jayanthi?
  3. Some companies tie advancement to people management. If you’re not a future people manager, you can’t grow. Not too many organisations value individual contributors as equally capable. Also, in a caste-biased workplace, how confident are we that we’re setting Dalit managers up for success if the team members carry said bias, unconsciously or otherwise?

While the notion of a meritocracy appears fair, one must realise that the reality on ground is very different. Facts and figures do matter, but so do personal opinions, affinity to the person you’re working with, pre-conceived notions and biases, as well as human nature.

What do the studies say?

In 2007, a series of experiments were conducted as a part of a study by Sukhadeo Thorat, Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Paul Attewell of the City University of New York Graduate Centre, reacting to a claim by the private sector that there wasn’t any evidence to support discrimination against Dalits in the Private Sector. Here are some of the highlights:

  1. In the first experiment, researchers answered a number of corporate job ads from Indian private sector companies with three sets of resumes. Each set of resumes was identical except set 1 – had names associated with higher castes, set 2 – had recognisably Dalit names and set 3 had recognisably Muslim names.

Findings – Dalits had only a 67% chance of a positive outcome vis-à-vis their higher caste counterparts, and Muslims had only a 33% chance.

  1. The second experiment involved interviewing Indian employers about their company’s hiring practices, recruitment procedures and patterns.

Findings – Indian employers operated with a powerful set of regional stereotypes of what would constitute a successful corporate employee, predicated on a potential candidate’s family background, regardless of their education.

  1. In the third experiment, they interviewed a group of post-graduate university students (with similar educational backgrounds) from different castes. The point was to understand their job expectations, search methods, and the role of personal social networks in their job search.

Findings – Most Dalit students had lowered expectations of roles and salaries than their higher caste counterparts and a lot of them didn’t see any merit in applying for private sector jobs because they knew they wouldn’t get in. Additionally, they didn’t have access through their social networks to the same roles and opportunities that higher caste students did.

Further, according to an article in Fortune India, “particularly in the non-metros, Dalit students face social ostracism, physical abuse, and are often denied access to basics that are available to other students such as drinking water or the use of toilets. Dalit students are also often made to do menial work in school, something that makes it to the newspapers with depressing regularity even today. Given this, there’s a high dropout rate.”

When Ashwini Deshpande, a professor from the Delhi School of Economics, interviewed 100 Dalit college students, many said they knew they wouldn’t get the job even before the interview began because they felt they couldn’t speak English fluently or were not dressed in the ‘right’ clothes or didn’t show the same body language as higher caste Hindus.

Also, a paper by Surinder Jodhka in 2010 revealed that Dalit entrepreneurs had greater difficulty starting new ventures because private networks play a large role in getting credit, rent, and access to dealer networks. This difference is even starker in knowledge-based industries, where entrepreneurs receive industry knowledge most often from people who share linguistic and caste backgrounds.

So, does it exist? The corporate world seems content to stick their head in the sand and yell “we’re a meritocracy” in the face of significant data stating otherwise.

Start a conversation

In recent times, whenever I’ve tried to raise caste as a problem, people get uncomfortable, change topics, or dismiss it as a non-issue in the corporate space. While most are ready to talk about sexual orientation, gender identity, and physical/mental disabilities, the door is still quite shut on acknowledging caste as a problem. And very often, for the privileged, it rarely is.

The first step to dealing with a problem is acknowledging that it exists. It is important to:

  1. Check your privilege and acknowledge it.
  2. Talk about it. Bring it up as a topic of conversation and see what people have to say.
  3. Speak to your Diversity & Inclusion managers/councils and ask why caste isn’t in focus.
  4. Engage with Dalit activists. Understand their point of view, the problems they face, and their life experiences.

Let’s take the first step.

For further reading:

Srikanth Suvvaru is a Marketing, HR and Employer Brand specialist. His passion lies in the Diversity & Inclusion space where he does work in the corporate sector leading LGBTQIA+ Inclusion at the workplace. 


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