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Caste in DEI: The Importance of a Global DEI Perspective

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

One of the most important aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work is that we must always be challenging how our perspectives are evolving in order to keep up with an ever-changing world.

Simran Jeet Singh and Aarti Shyamsunder wrote a piece for Harvard Business Review considering the role of caste in DEI. This historical system of hierarchical ranking stems from South Asia but in our ever-globalizing economy, it is no longer confined. We must consider how caste affects our organizations here in the US and around the world.

What is caste?

Caste is a form of social organization that has its roots in Hindu texts (link HBR). The system describes four ranked class groups originating from different parts of the body of Brahma. Below these four ranked class groups are Advises, which are indigenous people of South Asia, and Dalits, who are considered too low to even fall within the caste.

Caste is determined by familial line and is considered to be locked in at birth, making the possibility of social mobility near impossible. This system determines everything in South Asian countries, including the line of work one can enter. Because of this ingrained system, inequities based on caste are pervasive, with Dalits making up a large proportion of Indian labor.

Caste has been considered through the lens of American racism, most notably by Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste. Some similarities noted by Wilkerson are:

  • Occupational hierarchy: The idea that certain jobs are meant for those lower in the societal hierarchy. For southeast Asia’s caste system, this meant Dalits. For the U.S., historically, this meant Black Americans.

  • Inherent superiority vs. Inferiority: Both the caste system and American racism are upheld by the idea that certain individuals are superior to other individuals based on an inherent status these individuals have no control over.

Why should caste be a part of our DEI efforts?

Traditionally in the US, the primary identities of focus in DEI are race, gender, and sexual orientation. Yet, as the world of work becomes more globally diverse, it is also important to consider how DEI can seek to address identity categories that span the globe.

As mentioned before, caste is an essential indicator in South Asian communities. These communities have migrated throughout the globe, leading to a need to consider how caste has affected businesses both internationally and locally.

Caste can be hard for Western leaders and practitioners to identify, which makes it all the more important for us to educate ourselves on what caste means and how caste privilege and discrimination impact organizations. By continuing to ignore these issues, we fail to shine a light on how they are negatively impacting our organizational members.

What can we do to increase awareness of caste in our DEI efforts?

Within the HBR article, leaders on caste equity put together four actionable steps you can take to start addressing caste in your DEI efforts. These steps include (1) making caste a protected class, (2) including caste in employee experience survey items, (3) hosting frequent awareness events, and (4) having measurable goals for recruitment, hiring, and retention of caste-affected individuals.

The most important point about caste is to include it in how DEI is conceptualized among populations that are within caste systems. Without this acknowledgement, people won’t feel as valued, respected, seen, and heard. Inclusion is about listening to the voices within your organization and responding accordingly with action.

Therefore, organizations should prioritize listening to those members within their organization that are affected by caste and including caste in your DEI measurement and action strategy as it is relevant to your organization.

How can Mattingly help?

This approach reflects the importance of using measurement to increase DEI at every organization, an important mission of ours here at Mattingly Solutions, along with the importance of knowing that our identities do not exist in isolation but rather must be considered from an intersectional lens.

Looking to take steps to evolve your company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion? Contact us today to partner in creating a more inclusive and equitable organization for everyone.


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