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Scylla and Charybdis for Tech: Gender Diversity Versus the H-1B Visa

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I do not want to be xenophobic. This is a country of immigrants. We should welcome foreign born from Indian, Armenia, and elsewhere to our shores, particularly if those immigrants supply needed technical skills and expertise.

But not immigration to the exclusion of all else. As an industry, information technology has the worst record in hiring and promoting women. Less than five percent of the senior managers are women. Other industries such as transportation and financial services rank low but not as low as information technology. Don’t the powers that be in tech realize that their dependence on H-1B visas crowds out women, women who with training and understanding will become worthy of any confidence reposed in them?

Misrepresentation of the Numbers. Information technology companies beat the drum for an increased ceiling on the number of H-1B visas Immigration Services may grant. In doing so, the industry’s spokespersons understate numbers, damaging the industry’s credibility. Present law allows for 65,000 visas for foreign university graduates who supply skills in such short supply as to be unavailable here. Most of those gaining visas are males, mostly from India and mostly bound for IT. In arguing for a 185,000 cap, in the process terming the 65,000 number paltry, spokespersons’ statements are highly misleading. Immigration may grant up to 20,000 more visas to putative immigrants who gain graduate degrees from U.S. universities. Immigration may grant more visas to those who work for a facility or company located on a U.S. university campus or with government agencies or on their premises, even though the employer had no affiliation with the university or government. In fiscal 2014, Immigration Services granted 162,239 H-1B visas. Eighty-five percent of those visas went to IT hires.

Solemn Pronouncements from the Industry. Microsoft founder Bill Gates testified before a Congressional committee, “warning of dangers to the US economy if employers can’t import more skilled workers to fill jobs gaps.” Another industry spokesperson ratchets up the urgency: “Our nation’s leaders need to [lift] the cap on H-1B visas. …. [We] know the battle for talent is global. Encouraging legal, high-skilled immigration is vital for growth and prosperity.”

An In-Depth Look at the H-1B Visa. The usual visa applicant must overcome the “presumption of immigrant status.” They do so by providing evidence of relatively deep roots that will draw them back to their home country. Home ownership or a permanent job, for example, overcome the presumption. By contrast, the H-1B is a “dual intent visa.” The presumption of “immigrant status” does not apply. The visa holder may have an intent to stay in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. The visa is for three years, with license to apply for a three-year extension that is routinely granted. Moreover, while in the U.S., the H-1B holder may apply for permanent resident status (“a green card”) or, indeed, for citizenship. The majority of H-1B visa holders do stay in the U.S. long term or, indeed, permanently.

Just Density or Arrogance? An old proverb states “Women hold up half the sky.” They do not in information technology. Their gross underrepresentation is an exceedingly important social issue, especially in our pluralistic nation. Industry leaders do not evince a glimmer about how their over-reliance on the H-1B visa and on foreign workers crowds out women. Consistently, they fall back on the premise that their industry is a meritocracy when, in reality, they are continuing to hire and promote people who look like them, internally if not externally, just as titans of industry did 50 years ago.

Douglas M. Branson is the W. Edward Sell Chair at the University of Pittsburgh. He has been a visiting professor at Cornell University, the Universities of Washington and Hong Kong, and Melbourne University, among others. He was a State Department–sponsored corporate governance consultant to New Zealand, Indonesia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Serbia, and Bulgaria. He is the author of 23 books on gender and corporate governance. His new book is The Future of Tech is Female: How to Achieve Gender Diversity (NYU Press, July 2018).

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