American Association for Physician Leadership

Strategy and Innovation

Bringing Caste into the DEI Conversation

Dr. Simran Jeet Singh | Dr. Aarti Shyamsunder

June 3, 2023


In the United States, most efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion focus on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Companies should be aware of caste as a basis of discrimination, too. Caste is a form of social organization and identity in the South Asian context, and it affects more than 1 billion people around the world — and 5.4 million in the United States. Companies should follow these four steps to become more aware of caste as a factor in their own DEI efforts.

This past April, Thenmozhi Soundararajan was scheduled to give a talk about caste to employees at Google News. Soundararajan is a Dalit rights advocate — someone who works against caste-based discrimination against the Dalits, the community that has faced the most historic and ongoing caste oppression in Indian society, where the somewhat rigid and ancient caste hierarchy still prevails. But when some “upper-caste” employees complained that her views on caste were anti-Hindu, a firestorm ensued, ultimately resulting in Google canceling her visit.

The incident has had significant negative blowback: The senior manager who invited Soundararajan to speak has since resigned. News outlets around the world have criticized Google’s response, including some who have pointed to the influence of right-wing Hindu nationalist politics within the company. And employees have questions about whether Google truly believes in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) values that it announces.

Soundararajan looks back on the experience with hope that it offers an opportunity for people to learn and grow. “In a way, I’m grateful that this happened, because it’s forcing us to at least acknowledge caste and talk about it,” she says. “That’s the first step we all need to take.”

When it comes to corporate efforts on DEI, certain aspects of identity receive more attention than others. Most of what we focus on is driven by primary identity markers in our local contexts. For Americans, for example, this means that DEI primarily focuses on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Yet as our world continues to shrink and as companies continue to globalize and diversify, it is increasingly important that we are attentive to other social dynamics at play within our companies and among our communities. Caste is one of them.

Caste is a primary form of social organization and identity in the South Asian context, yet its influence is not limited to that region. As South Asian communities have migrated all over the world, caste has become an important identity in global business and leadership. Today, caste is a key identity category that directly impacts more than one billion people around the world and 5.4 million South Asians in the United States.

Despite its significant impact, caste remains at the bottom of DEI agendas. For companies, this is risky. Failing to address caste inequities can increase liability, lead to employee disengagement and unrest, and result in reputational damage. Given global companies’ interest in South Asia, as well as how much talent comes from that region, companies and leaders should understand what caste is, how it manifests at work, and how to integrate education about caste-based discrimination into their DEI workstreams.

What is caste and how does it show up?

Scholars generally accept caste to be a 3,000-year-old concept for organizing social hierarchies that is rooted in early Hindu texts. Many Hindus believe that the four ranked class groups originated from different parts of the body of the deity Brahma: Brahmins (the priestly/educated caste) from the mouth, Kshatriyas (the warrior caste) from the arms, Vaishyas (the trader caste) from the thighs, and Shudras (the peasant caste) from the feet. A version of this myth is even found in the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu text. At the bottom of the hierarchy are two groups: Advasis, the indigenous people of South Asia, and Dalits, those deemed too low to even be included within the caste system. Grafted onto this broad hierarchy are thousands of caste groups that have shifted between regions and over time, all while remaining rigidly hierarchical.

One’s caste is determined by the family into which they are born, and caste identity often dictates who one can marry, how one can worship, and what kind of work one does. For individuals, social mobility is next to impossible. While India’s affirmative action policy has helped create opportunities for those at the bottom of the hierarchy, caste-based inequities are drastic, both historically and presently. For instance, even today, we see an occupational segregation inextricably tied to caste: While Brahmins are overrepresented among the educated class, and therefore among organizational and political leadership even in the Indian diaspora, Dalits make up a disproportionate amount of Indian labor, including domestic workers, daily wage laborers, and sanitation workers who handle human waste directly.

While caste is rooted in ancient Hindu texts, it is now found in all South Asian religious communities and amongst immigrants who come from all South Asian countries.

One way of viewing it is through the lens of American racism. Here is how Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste, makes the connection:

A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste, whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranks apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.

How do we deal with caste in the workplace?

While some aspects of caste are discernible to those who look for caste markers, such as surname, food habits, or dress, for most western leaders, other forms of identity, such as race and gender, are easier to identify. This is one reason why it’s so important for leaders to become familiar with caste: Otherwise, it can be difficult to recognize, measure, and address.

Among those who know about caste, disparities actually get worse when those with caste and class privilege identify as caste-blind and refuse to critically intervene or check their own biases. We should not have to wait for egregious incidents of caste discrimination — such as Dalit workers suing a Hindu temple in New Jersey for exploitation — to begin making our workplaces safer or to comply with worker and civil rights law.

It has also been the case that those benefiting from caste privilege have claimed they are being discriminated against when they can no longer discriminate on the basis of caste. In those cases, they have been quick to invoke anti-Hindu or anti-minority rhetoric in an effort to uphold the structural and personal benefits of caste hierarchy. Until we learn to bring these issues to the surface and address them, they will remain shrouded and unresolved, with the potential to explode in our faces, as happened recently with Google.

A better approach is for leaders to be aware of what caste is and how it operates among people — and to be mindful of how caste privilege advantages some and disadvantages others. According to leaders on caste equity, there are four simple steps we can take to start addressing caste and make our workplaces more inclusive and equitable:

1. Add caste as a listed, protected category.

U.S. employment law bars employers from discriminating based on eight identity categories: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information. These protections have been foundational to enhancing equal opportunities in the workplace across diverse identity groups.

Leaders can learn from this progress and add protected categories to their own DEI policies and processes – and include caste among them, as several U.S. universities and other institutions have already done.

2. Conduct frequent surveys on employee experience on bias, and include caste as part of those questions.

Too often, leaders feel they have a pulse on the company’s culture without ever asking their team members. And too often, they are wrong.

DEI practitioners consistently encourage leaders to survey its employees to get a true sense of how inclusive and psychologically safe the workplace really is. Yet, even when companies ask these questions, they often fail to make space for people to share their unique experiences and concerns.

In preparing the survey, make sure to also include aspects of people’s identities that may be salient yet are often overlooked. Ideally, this should take the form of an anonymized experience audit which allows for intersectional cuts based on inclusive and sensitively created demographic categories.

3. Create awareness by hosting frequent awareness events, inviting speakers and organizations who specialize in caste equity.

To truly shift culture, it’s not enough to simply build it from behind the scenes. We must also work to grow awareness and empathy.

A helpful practice in the DEI space has been to invite insightful speakers who can help illuminate people’s unique experiences, foster more insight and understanding across differences, and ultimately, build an inclusive culture. Of course, talks by high-profile speakers should be supported by ongoing cultural and systems change.

4. Set strong KPIs to measure progress in recruiting, hiring, and retention of talent from caste-affected communities.

A good leader will set KPIs against their work priorities. If ensuring equity and inclusion is one of your commitments, identify how you will measure progress and hold yourself accountable. Building these goals into hiring and retention processes is a best practice in the DEI space, and the same will be true as we work towards caste equity. Additionally, proactive measures such as these will allow organizations to respond sensitively and strategically instead of resorting to knee-jerk reactions such as retaliation, PR damage control and so on.

Leaders and companies committed to equity should also be aware of how caste-oppressed and Dalit individuals are denied access to social mobility. But the lack of elite networks does not translate to a lack of skill, proficiency, or intelligence. Diversity takes a holistic picture of all candidates. Being attentive to systemic oppression is an important avenue for disrupting our own biases and ensuring equitable opportunities and outcomes for all.

As companies continue to create global footprints, it is time our notions of DEI do so, too.

Thanks to Christina Dhanuja, Yashica Dutt, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, and Audrey Truschke for their insightful contributions to this article.

Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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Dr. Simran Jeet Singh

Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program and author of the national bestselling book, The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.

Dr. Aarti Shyamsunder

Dr. Aarti Shyamsunder, a work and organizational psychologist, is the Global Head of DEI at YSC Consulting, a part of Accenture.

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