‘Why is this place full of Indians?’ A look at discrimination in the tech industry

A critical look at Indian discrimination in tech, told by veteran engineers.

On July 14, Clear Technology Consulting, LLC, a Florida-based tech company, created a job posting on LinkedIn. They were looking for a Tableau developer experienced in SQL. The job description read, “Any work visa, except OPT, CPT, and Indians.”

**screenshot of the job posting; tweet linked here**

The posting was almost immediately condemned across social media after becoming public, and was subsequently flagged and removed by LinkedIn. In a Twitter statement, LinkedIn wrote,

“Discrimination of any kind violates our policies & the post has been removed... Our team is prioritizing how we can more effectively detect this content to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

Outrage rose from the tech community as well. “This is ridiculous and completely unacceptable,” said a data programmer from Mumbai, who saw the posting while she was looking for job openings. “Well, also completely illegal.”

Covert Discrimination

Clearly, overt racist acts still exist, but more often Indian employees in the tech industry say they face covert discrimination.

For most, dealing with microaggressions and implicit bias is a daily experience. Especially for these seven tech professionals, whose names were excluded for job protection.

For an Indian Cognizant employee, the microaggressions started on his first day at the company. In a Blind post, the user said that himself and two other Indian new-hires were never welcomed to the team.

“No one reached out to us to welcome or get to know us,” he said. “I personally sent emails to other people to introduce myself.”

Besides feeling unwelcome, the employee explained the treatment he and his Indian co-workers received was vastly different from other new hires.

“There is an annoying email thread started by my manager to welcome and introduce non-Indian teammates… [he] keeps welcoming them daily, despite it being almost two weeks since they joined.”

On a different Blind post, an Indian SAP employee recalled having a similar experience.

“When I joined, [my manager] just introduced me to everyone via email...When a non-Indian employee joined, he asked me to get a welcome gift [for them] and plan a lunch.”

These types of experiences have been a part of the industry culture for decades.

A California-based engineer, M, with 30 years of experience, said he has been dealing with implicit bias since he started working for tech companies in the late 1980s.

“You can always find people who are racist,” he said. “Where ever you go, there will be somebody. Because those people just can’t hide it.”

The 70-year-old has worked as an engineer for companies like Intel, Sun Microsystems, and AMI. But he said an incident he never forgets happened almost 10 years ago at a Silicon Valley-based company he chose not to name.

“At this company, I was a senior product manager and the group I was working with was almost 80% South Asian,” M said. “One day we were working and the vice president of the company, who was white, was passing through the hallway. He said, ‘What is this? Why is this place full of Indians all the time?’

According to M, everyone in the room heard the vice president's crude statement.

“I wish somebody had captured it, then everyone else could have heard it too,” he said. “Because that wasn’t the only time we heard that.”

Implicit bias and discriminatory practices are so common in the workplace, many don’t even report them. During his three decades at a number of tech companies, M said that he never saw any of his Indian co-workers make a discrimination complaint to Human Resources.

“I think for most us, it’s kind of this subconscious feeling,” he said. “You hear things here and there but you don’t complain because it’s kind of a part of the culture. You don’t want to rock the boat, because you know what it will cost you.”

Intersectional Issues & The Value of Diversity

According to S, a data analyst from Deloitte, the constant pressure to fit in with white Americans also takes a heavy toll on Indians, especially to those who grew up outside of the U.S.

S, a Chouili, India native, said she has to change the way she speaks in the workplace, to get rid of her accent as best as she can.

“I feel like I have to be aware of my accent all the time,” she said. “If I’m not, people are always asking me to clarify what I’m saying and that’s always just awkward.”

The 23-year-old said being a woman adds even more challenges to the equation.

On top of the racial and ethnic discrimination, she said Indian women in tech often struggle to have their voices heard in a room full of men.

“There’s not a lot of us in the industry,” she said. “I feel like with [male co-workers] I have to put more effort in and push myself to join conversations that I normally wouldn’t be a part of.”

According to a 2016 report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women are 2x more likely to quit their jobs in the high tech industry. The study states that 56% of women in tech quit their jobs mid-career because of negative workplace experiences.

S added that her experiences have varied based on the teams she was a part of.

“More recently, I have been working with more diverse, women-led teams, so it’s definitely been better,” she said.

B, an Indian software engineer at Amazon, agreed.

“I work with a very diverse team, with co-workers and managers from China, Korea, Bangladesh and India,” he said. “I think that plays a huge role in why I’ve never really experienced discrimination at the office and why our team works so well together.”

According to a June 2020 study published in the Academy of Management Journal, tech companies with high levels of diversity both in upper and lower management teams exhibit the highest levels of productivity.

B responds to a lower management team at Amazon. In most tech companies, lower management teams are pretty racially and ethnically diverse. So for someone like B, who has recently entered the industry and started at a low-level engineering job, the discrimination might not be immediately visible.

According to M and his 30 years of experience, the problems tend to become more clear for Indian employees as they start to climb the corporate ladder.

“Unless the company is founded by Asians, in most places, you’ll only see white men in the upper management roles,” M said. “For most Indians, you’ll quickly start to move up but you’ll also quickly see you can only move up to a certain point. There’s this invisible ceiling. It’s like this hierarchy that lets you be in certain positions...a system that keeps us down and limited to lower or non-management positions.”

M added this culture is often very unproductive for companies, as it leads to individuals quitting or deciding to launch start-ups. The research published in the Academy of Management Journal supports M’s experiences. The study, which analyzed data from 201 high tech companies, found that when diversity among lower and upper-level management matched, tech companies thrived. Diversity among all management levels positively impacted companies’ ability to make good business decisions. The researchers also showed these companies absorbed more information and had a competitive advantage over non-diverse companies.

Caste Discrimination

Even with diversity, Indian employees still face discrimination. Earlier this month, Cisco Systems Inc. and two Indian supervisors at the company were sued for discrimination.

The lawsuit, filed by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleges that the company “engaged in unlawful employment practices on the basis of religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity and race/color” against an unnamed engineer.

The lawsuit identifies the engineer as Dalit, a term used for the lowest members in India’s caste system. The allegations state that the two supervisors, who are from India’s highest caste, discriminated against the plaintiffs due to his Dalit status.

Although India's caste system, a centuries old social hierarchy, was abolished in 1950; it is still omnipresent and a prevalent issue in the U.S.

In fact, the Cisco lawsuit is not the only case of caste discrimination reported in the past years. According to a 2018 study by Equality Labs, a civil-rights organization that fights oppression based on caste and religion, 67% of Dalits reported unfair treatment at their workplace due to their caste.

“Unfortunately, these things happen, especially in the [tech] industry where Indians are highly populated,” said a New York based computer engineer. “It’s horrific and it shouldn’t be happening at all, but denying it won’t get us anywhere. So, we just need to acknowledge it and work on ending it.”

M agreed. “I think with all these movements we are seeing today, change is definitely happening,” he said. “All we can do is continue to move the needle in the right direction.”

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