Examining Casteism 2
A look at the causes and potential solutions to India’s new form of discrimination
Every month or so, a post like the above will fly past in my feed. Anyone without those credentials will react in an understandably angry way.
“Can you fucking believe these people! Here I am, fully qualified for this job; yet they want only Tier 1 folks. RIDICULOUS. SO UNFAIR”
An absolutely justified reaction. While Casteism 1 is still alive and kicking, in India, we’re seeing the rise of Casteism 2— A new hierarchy where people from a few fabled institutions enjoy advantages withheld from others. Be it job opportunities or startup funding, and even life partners; the “Tier 1 insitutes” command disproportionate amounts of attention, opportunity and financial capital. It can feel disgusting. Almost, like a conspiracy to deny many others of their fair share.
Below I try to apply Hanlons razors to this problem. My goal is ask, are there some not-so-nefarious explanations of iniquitous phenomenon? Followed by a discussion of potential solutions.
- Illegibility of skill
People in tech and in an increasing number of sectors of the economy, are knowledge workers. We (allegedly) “think for a living”. An architects drawings are expressions of thoughts, not tangible goods. The way knowledge workers operate makes it nearly impossible to gauge individual skill.
Lets start from a near ideal scenario: Sports. Messi & Ronaldo don’t have to give interviews when switching clubs. Their performance and performance characteristics are visible to all. In Football as in work, a lot of factors are outside of the control of the individual. Desired outcomes are a function of individual skill, team characteristics, environment and luck. Yet there’s enough information for market participants to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Knowledge work differs from sports along two lines:
Lack of visibility
- Individual skill: No one can see spec I wrote or the code I pushed or for that matter how I rude I am or how late I show up to meetings.
- Environment: Someone coasting in a performant team at Google can claim credit for a lot while someone busting their chops at a smaller company will have much lesser to show.
Inconsistent game formats
- Practices: Some software teams are heavy on TDD+automation, some rely on manual QA. Some companies want designers to also do front end coding, others don’t care. Some places expect PMs to own project management, others have dedicated project managers. Some teams are agile & customer-driven, others are dancing to exec whims.
- Culture: Company & team culture define the power equations, nature of information sharing, etc. which are material inputs that determine how you work, and thus make the nature of work differ. Amazon is run by business people while engineers dominate Google, the same job role at the two companies can feel entirely different.
Knowledge workers are all playing different invisible games. So performances are invisible and incomparable.
This means an individuals skills are illegible and bench-marking skill level is difficult. Regardless of these difficulties, companies absolutely have to hire people! So, this illegibility must be resolved somehow.
2. Oversupply: Whether you’re a woman on Facebook or a recruiter processing job applications, your inbox will be flooded with a bunch of thirsty dudes who trigger an instant swipe left. Most evident in fresher hiring, Indian recruiters face a massive oversupply of bad candidates.
3. Downside: The cost of a bad hire is quite high. It takes tens to hundreds of resume screens, phone screens and interviews till you settle on one candidate. Should that person honour you by accepting your offer, it takes another 3–6 months to find out if they were a good hire 3–6 months. That’s a huge cost in effort and time. Naturally, this can make the recruiters risk-averse.
The above factors combine to make the recruiters life miserable. You need proxies in lieu of skill assessments. You need aggressive filters to counter the incredibly low signal to noise ratio in incoming candidates. The high cost of bad candidates means you don’t want to take chances. Guess what?! Insistence on fancy degrees & famous previous employers solves multiple problems at once.
5 problems, 1 solution! L’OReal Total IITian now enriched with an IIM degree.
Everyone involved in the hiring process — from the Hiring manager requesting headcount to the Executive approving it & the Recruiter sourcing candidates; is a human. Mind-blowing insight, I know. But this means individually and collectively, they have very predictable biases.
- As an exercise, quickly name 10 engineering colleges off the top of your head. <15 second pause>. Chances are that you named (a) colleges that you or your friends went to (b) colleges in nearby regions (c) The famous ones. Congrats, you got played by the Availability heuristic, which influences the colleges that companies consider as hiring targets & consequently end up visiting.
- “Those exams are so tough! These IIT/IIM guys capable of anything!” Hello Halo effect.
- A not-insignificant number of founders are from these top institutes. Guess who they will perceive as a culture fit, subtly indulging in in-group favouritism.
- “Hey! We hired from IIM Bangalore this year!” is a nice way of saying that your company is successful. Hello economic signalling.
- The tech industry had a phrase that went “No one gets fired for buying IBM” which meant translated to the fact you can cover your ass because you suggested the safest/industry standard option, even if if was overtly expensive or inappropriate. You can reframe that to “No one gets fired for hiring from IIT/IIM”.
There’s many others, but I think I’ve belabored this point this enough. Lots of teeny little biases means we are susceptible as individuals to favour a certain class of people.
Behold the hierarchy
A status hierarchy is a frequent emergent property of any collection of creatures. Whether it is the dominance hierarchy of the biological world or class in the socio-economic sphere. It doesn’t have to happen, it just frequently does. Where classes/labels don’t exist, competition for scarce resources ensures that they get invented and propagated.
A good example is the startup world. Entrepreneurs are the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels? The free thinking free spirited totally contrarian people who have broken free from the shackles of the system. Yet for every old-world label in the job market, there is new world label in the startup market.
For every DPS/Bishop cotton alum, there is a YC/Techstars alum.
For every IIT/BITS graduate, there is a Sequioa, Accel funded startup.
For every ex-Facebook, ex-Google founder, there is … well ex-Facebook, ex-Google employee (this label carries cred in the old world and the new world!)
Seem like they behave exactly like the people they abhor. All non-conformists are just conformists to a different creed. Humans are status-seeking monkeys. And the desire to make status legible keeps reinventing itself. The means and mechanisms change, the goal remain the same: Looking cooler than the pack.
Getting out of this
So now you’re thinking; Thanks man, that explains some of it. What should I do now?! Give up on my hopes and dreams?
I am by no means justifying these biases or the presence of Casteism 2 or hinting this is written in stone. I seek to illuminate some of the causes so we can think better about the solutions.
So what can we do?
Call this out. Not with anger but with love. We commonly believe and act as if, the best thing we can do to change a persons perspective is shower them with new information. “I’ll just tell them they’re biased and it’ll all be OK”. In fact, the exact opposite happens. Our beliefs spring forth from our identity. Flipping your identity from normal human being to subtle-propagator of Casteism 2 is hurtful and embarrassing so people react by discrediting the information. A better way to flip someones perspective is to politely implant doubt and trigger reflection.
Talk. Talk to your leaders, your HRs, your hiring managers. Did you really need to put in that filter? Honestly, my guess is that >50% of the people putting in those requirements don’t have the said credentials themselves. They just do it on autopilot. Ask them, Would you want to be disadvantaged? Why propagate a system that’s unfair and hurts you!?
Culture — Some of us are proud of our credentials and want this discrimination to continue, it feels so good. But it’s a cheap pride. Credibility in the workplace and/or the marketplace has to earned on a continuous basis. Harping over your degree that you earned a decade or more ago seems silly. Celebrate excellence, not credentials. Those autopilot decisions that people in firms make? Those are largely replications of the founder/promoters thought processes which means there’s a definite opportunity to change them.
Legislation — India didn’t attempt to solve Casteism 1 or workplace discrimination by just talking and nudging. We put laws in place to stop bad behaviours. Article 15 of the Constitution (now a major motion picture!) prohibits caste discrimination. The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976 prohibits paying differently for the same work across genders. Time to broaden the scope of such laws to handle the newer forms of discrimination.
Technology — presents tons of opportunities too.
- Platforms like HackerRank & Kaggle turn knowledge worker skills into a sports. Behance and Dribble make designer skills transparent. Where else and how else can we reduce illegibility of knowledge worker skills?
- You can use AIs executing pre-programmed flows (like chat bots) as interviewers during video interviews and and phone screens. By eliminating the human, you can eliminate some of the bias.(See “Worlds first AI presenter”).
- When scientists want to measure gender bias, they experiment by sending the exact same resume to multiple people but with names changed from a male ones to a female ones. Can’t we have similar systems that do that in regular life? Auto-hide colleges in resumes? Or at least don’t reveal by them by default?
- Common interview processes, outside the firm, where interviewers can be trained professionals with bias training are another way (E.g. TripleByte)
Casteism 2 isn’t merely motivated gate-keeping, there are many factors that can lead to it’s emergence. At the systemic level, they are illegibility of skill, oversupply of bad talent & high risk of failure. At the individual level, it is a slew of cognitive biases. Alongside, there is a fundamental issue that scarcity triggers competition, which in turn leads to differentiation and signalling. There is no silver bullet. We’ll need to do everything from raising awareness, to putting in legislation and using less discriminatory processes. You might not be able to fully cure people of their preferences for certain labels, but you can make those labels less relevant and more mutable (see comic below).
Thanks for reading! If you disagree vehemently or have points to add, let your voice be heard in the comments.
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