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Hidden in Plain Sight: Decoding Inscriptions of Caste and Gender in Computing

Palashi Vaghela

President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Communication, University of California San Diego

Abstract: Recent caste discrimination lawsuits in Silicon Valley have renewed global interest in the phenomenon of caste, this time in the computing industry. A recent bill in California (SB403,) emerging from the anti-caste activism in the technology industry, also proposed to add explicit legal caste protections in the US. Caste has been added in nondiscrimination policies of universities like Brown and Brandeis and firms like Apple and IBM in the last 3 years. This recent attention is set against a long-standing counter-narrative in the global Indian diaspora that computing is essentially meritocratic and, thus, casteless.

In this talk, I show how this myth of castelessness is produced, maintained, broken or worked-around within the global computing industry. I discuss how caste is reconfigured in the modern context of computing, how casteism is sustained and kept hidden, how casteist narratives of merit are challenged, and consequently, why this matters. To do this, I will draw on two years of ethnographic work in India and the Indian diaspora with Dalit (formerly untouchable) and upper-caste women engineers to reveal the relationship between caste, gender and computing. I will elaborate how a Dalit feminist study of caste and its complexities offer methodological and epistemological interventions in the analysis of socio-cultural worlds of technology.

Bio: An ICT engineer turned scholar, educator, and writer, Palashi has been working at the intersection of society and technology for more than a decade. She have a PhD in Information Science from Cornell University with a minor in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She use ethnographic, qualitative, and mixed methods to study relations of power and inequality that are invisible or unaccounted for in wider understandings of computing practice and culture. She current research is a historical and anthropological study of the political economy of caste and gender in the global computing industry. Their research has been published in top peer-reviewed venues in computing and is supported by Microsoft Research, Social Science Research Council, Mellon Foundation, among others. She has previously worked in the technology industry, nonprofits and social enterprises in India and continues to be actively involved with these communities through research and service. More details about her work can be found at