Caste bias in US: Cisco sued, tech insiders cite deep rot


The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has filed a lawsuit alleging that Cisco ignored the caste discrimination an Indian engineer faced from two managers, and insiders said the tech world needed to wake up to the reality of caste bias among its South Asian work force.

The lawsuit alleges that the employee was harassed by two managers because he was from a lower Indian caste than them. The managers told the employee’s colleagues that the plaintiff was from the “Scheduled Caste” (Dalit) and got admission in the Indian Institute of Technology through affirmative action, according to the lawsuit.

CISCO spokesperson Ashley Pries did not respond to an email sent by indica News.

US employment law does not specifically bar caste-based discrimination, but California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing contends in the lawsuit that the Hindu faith’s lingering caste system is based on protected classes such as religion.

The lawsuit, filed in the federal court in San Jose, does not name the victim. It says the employee has been a principal engineer at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters since October 2015 and that he was born at the bottom of caste hierarchy as a Dalit, once called “untouchables”.

Like other large Silicon Valley employers, Cisco’s workforce includes thousands of Indian immigrants.

The lawsuit states that the employee reported a former Cisco engineering manager in November 2016 for “outing him as a Dalit to colleagues”. The manager, who has been named as Sundar Iyer, retaliated but the company then determined caste discrimination was not illegal, said the lawsuit.

The lawsuit accuses another former Cisco manager, Ramana Kompella, of harassment and internally enforcing the caste hierarchy.

Iyer and Kompella did not respond when Indica News tried to contact them via their profiles.

The court document sent to Indica News by the plaintiff ‘s office states that the plaintiff was expected to accept caste hierarchy within the workplace where he held the lowest status within the team and, as a result, received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment because of his religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity, and race/color.

According to the lawsuit, Cisco also employs a significant number of South Asian Indian workers through Indian-owned consulting firms. However, the lawsuit alleges, few South Asian employees raised concerns to their American employers, because they believe “their concerns will not be given weight” or will lead to “negative consequences to their career.”

According to the lawsuit, Cisco failed to even acknowledge the unlawful nature of the conduct against the manager, nor did it take any steps necessary to prevent such discrimination, harassment, and retaliation from continuing in its workplace.

Reuters quoted a Cisco spokesperson, Robyn Blum, as saying that the company would “vigorously defend itself”.

“Cisco is committed to an inclusive workplace for all. We were fully in compliance with all laws as well as our own policies,” Blum was quoted as saying.

According to a 2018 report by civil rights group Equality Labs, 67 percent of Dalits felt unfairly treated at their US workplaces, the lawsuit mentioned.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Equality Labs, told indica News: “This landmark case is exactly why Equality Labs conducted our survey, Caste in the United States, and it validates the experience Dalit Bahujan Americans face around casteism in American institutions. As our survey found, 60 percent of Dalits report experiencing caste-based derogatory jokes or comments and 20 percent reported facing discrimination at work as a result of their caste.”

He said this report was the first and only existing demographic survey that collects information on caste discrimination among South Asian Americans. Its use in this case shows the need for further research on the needs of caste-oppressed communities in the US.

“We encourage not only Cisco, but all major tech corporations to work on caste competency for their teams. South Asians are a critical part of one of the largest, most rapidly changing, industries of the world,” said Soundararajan. “We support all survivors of caste oppression and demand that caste be a protected category in institutionalized anti-discrimination law. “

She said that Equality Labs is also committed to continuing South Asian workers who speak out about caste discrimination they have faced. “We encourage them to e-mail us as this case exposes more of the discrimination in the US,”she added.

Madhukar Govindaraju, CEO of Numly, which offers AI-based software to improve employee performance and employee engagement, told indica News: “Leadership requires empathy first, and that is lacking in the tech industry.”

He said there was significant bias in high tech already, and that needed to change.

“Many companies struggle today to deal with conscious and unconscious bias within their multi-generational and multi-ethnicity workforce,” Govindaraju said.