Posted on November 2, 2020

India’s Engineers Have Thrived in Silicon Valley. So Has Its Caste System.

Nitasha Tiku, Washington Post, October 27, 2020

Whenever Benjamin Kaila, a database administrator who immigrated from India to the United States in 1999, applies for a job at a U.S. tech company, he prays that there are no other Indians during the in-person interview. That’s because Kaila is a Dalit, or member of the lowest-ranked castes within India’s system of social hierarchy, formerly referred to as “untouchables.”

Silicon Valley’s diversity issues are well documented: It’s still dominated by White and Asian men, and Black and Latino workers remain underrepresented. But for years, as debates about meritocracy raged on, the tech industry’s reliance on Indian engineers allowed another type of discrimination to fester. And Dalit engineers like Kaila say U.S. employers aren’t equipped to address it.

In more than 100 job interviews for contract work over the past 20 years, Kaila said he got only one job offer when another Indian interviewed him in person. When members of the interview panel have been Indian, Kaila says, he has faced personal questions that seem to be used to suss out whether he’s a member of an upper caste, like most of the Indians working in the tech industry.

“They don’t bring up caste, but they can easily identify us,” Kaila says, rattling off all of the ways he can be outed as potentially being Dalit, including the fact that he has darker skin.

The legacy of discrimination from the Indian caste system is rarely discussed as a factor in Silicon Valley’s persistent diversity problems. Decades of tech industry labor practices, such as recruiting candidates from a small cohort of top schools or relying on the H-1B visa system for highly skilled workers, have shaped the racial demographics of its technical workforce. Despite that fact, Dalit engineers and advocates say that tech companies don’t understand caste bias and have not explicitly prohibited caste-based discrimination.

In recent years, however, the Dalit rights movement has grown increasingly global, including advocating for change in corporate America. In June, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a landmark suit against Cisco and two of its former engineering managers, both upper-caste Indians, for discriminating against a Dalit engineer.

After the lawsuit was announced, Equality Labs, a nonprofit advocacy group for Dalit rights, received complaints about caste bias from nearly 260 U.S. tech workers in three weeks, reported through the group’s website or in emails to individual staffers. Allegations included caste-based slurs and jokes, bullying, discriminatory hiring practices, bias in peer reviews, and sexual harassment, said executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan. The highest number of claims were from workers at Facebook (33), followed by Cisco (24), Google (20), Microsoft (18), IBM (17) and Amazon (14). The companies all said they don’t tolerate discrimination.

And a group of 30 female Indian engineers who are members of the Dalit caste and work for Google, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco and other tech companies say they have faced caste bias inside the U.S. tech sector, according to a statement shared exclusively with The Washington Post.


The tech industry has grown increasingly dependent on Indian workers. According to the State Department, the United States has issued more than 1.7 million H-1B visas since 2009, 65 percent of which have gone to people of Indian nationality. Close to 70 percent of H-1B visa holders work in the tech industry, up from less than 40 percent in 2003, says David J. Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

Devesh Kapur, a professor of South Asian studies at Johns Hopkins University, found that in 2003, only 1.5 percent of Indian immigrants in the United States were Dalits or members of the lower-ranked castes.

Big Tech’s annual company diversity reports typically don’t distinguish between East Asian or South Asian workers and do not delve into caste, class, or socioeconomic distinctions of any race or gender. {snip}


Dalit engineers said that most Indian workers from upper castes do not seem aware of their caste privilege and believe caste bias is a thing of the past, despite the fact that high-profile tech CEOs and board members, such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Amazon board member Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsi, are Brahmins, or members of the highest caste.


Caste is often discovered through questions, not always through appearance. (Although Dalits may have a darker complexion, skin color is not synonymous with caste.) Questions about whether someone is a vegetarian, where they grew up, what religion they practice or who they married may be used as a “caste locator,” seven Indian engineers working in the United States said in interviews with The Post, unrelated to the statement shared by 30 female Indian engineers.

Other tests include patting an Indian man on the back to see whether he is wearing a “sacred thread” worn by some Brahmins, the highest-ranked caste. {snip}

Internal Microsoft emails from 2006 obtained by The Post indicate that caste bias is a long-standing problem within the industry. That year, after the Indian government announced affirmative action measures for marginalized castes, a debate broke out on a company thread about whether the bar was being lowered for Dalit candidates and about their inherent intelligence and work ethic. HR intervened but only to temporarily shut down the thread.


Recent discussion threads about the Cisco case on the anonymous app Blind show tech workers raising the same questions about Dalit engineers in 2020.

In the Cisco suit, the complainant, an Indian engineer identified as John Doe, alleges he was paid less and denied opportunities because both managers knew he is Dalit. It also claims that Doe faced retaliation after he complained about facing a hostile work environment.


If Doe wins, it will be the first major case to prove discrimination against Dalits in the private sector, says Kevin Brown, a law professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, who has been traveling to India and studying the Dalit rights movement for more than 20 years. Brown says the decision would have a clear impact on tech companies’ U.S. operations but also raise the importance of the issue for multinational companies operating in India.

The 30 female engineers are urging their employers, as well as corporate America at large, to include caste as a protected category, so that they feel comfortable reporting this type of bias to human resources. {snip}