WASHINGTON, June 20, 2014 — Internet company Yahoo released a workforce diversity report on Tuesday this week. On Thursday, House Republicans chose Kevin McCarthy of California as their new majority leader on Thursday.
The two events aren’t closely related, but there’s an irony there involving H-1B visas and race.
McCarthy has been closely linked to Silicon Valley ever since his election to the California statehouse. The Information Technology Industry Council named him “Legislator of the Year” in 2012. McCarthy was instrumental in the passage of a patent bill last year that was favored by the tech industry, and he has consistently supported legislation on surveillance reform, free trade, and an expansion of programs to bring high-skilled foreign workers to the U.S.
Most of the high-skilled foreigners employed by Silicon Valley are Asian.
Yahoo released a workforce diversity report this week. Among other things, the report showed that 50 percent of its employees in the U.S. are white, 39 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black. (The rest were “other” or not disclosed.) Tech giant Google released diversity numbers in May. Its U.S. workforce is 61 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 2 percent black, and 3 percent Hispanic.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson has been attempting to pressure Silicon Valley firms to diversify their workforces. He expressed his deep disappointment in their failure to do so. “I’m disappointed. For the most part they have not improved,” he said when Google released its numbers. “Look at their board of directors and their c-suites. There’s a culture of exclusion.”
Jackson’s disappointment was echoed in the press:
- CNET reported on Wednesday, “Yahoo on Tuesday released statistics about its workforce, and the employee makeup is – like many of the other tech firms that have disclosed data – mostly male and mostly white.”
- USA Today ran an article with the headline, “Yahoo latest tech icon to reveal lack of diversity.” Beneath the headline was the caption, “Yahoo and Google recently released staff demographic data showing that two of the tech sector’s largest firms remain largely white and male.”
- Orson Aguilar wrote today in Newsday, “Silicon Valley has a major diversity problem,” going on in his lede that this “massive diversity problem … seems endemic in the Silicon Valley tech world.”
- The International Business Times reported, “Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies are releasing employment figures, which show an overwhelming male, white and Asian workforce.”
- The Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Elder wrote yesterday, “The Silicon Valley workforce is overwhelmingly white and Asian, according to newly released corporate reports.”
Ignoring the gender element (those firms’ employees are predominantly male), the focus was “mostly white,” “largely white,” “overwhelmingly white and Asian,” and “not diverse.”
According to the 2010 census, the American population is 63.7 percent non-Hispanic white. Both Yahoo and Google are less white than the workforce overall, and it is unlikely that Yahoo and Google are much different from the rest of Silicon Valley and the U.S. tech industry.
Jackson and others have been critical of the lack of racial diversity in the industry for years. The press on the subject has been misleading, even positively dishonest. The industry is not excessively white; it is less white than the workforce composition says it “should” be. It’s by lumping Asians together with whites that we get an industry that is “overwhelmingly white and Asian.”
What they mean is that it is disproportionately Asian.
There are several reasons for the low numbers of blacks and Hispanics in the tech industry. One of the most serious is a pipeline issue: Asians were 5 percent of high school graduates in 2010, and 29 percent of Advanced Placement (AP) computer science test-takers in 2013. Blacks were 15 percent of graduates and 4 percent of AP computer science test-takers. For whites the numbers were 62 and 54 percent respectively, and for Hispanics, 16 and 8 percent.
In college it gets worse. A few years ago, there were exactly two PhDs awarded to black students; one was hired by Microsoft, the other by Google. Out of 1,400 PhDs awarded in computer science in the U.S. in 2010 and 2011, only 16 went to blacks. (We should note that fewer than 350 went to women.)
Expansion of the H-1B program would only make things worse on the diversity front. Most of those new tech workers would be Asian, further driving down the percentages of blacks, Hispanics, and whites.
Some observers are unmoved by the lack of diversity in the tech industry. In fact, the problem isn’t lack of diversity, but the wrong kind of diversity for people like Jesse Jackson. Decades ago, there were “too many” Jews in top tier universities; now there are “too many” Asians in top-tier universities, and in particular in STEM programs. Diversity proponents are in the uncomfortable position of pitting one minority against another, not helping to change a “mostly white” tech industry workforce.
The lords of Silicon Valley, a bastion of liberalism in a liberal state, are pleased with the new House majority leader, a friend of the industry. At the same time, they are eager to appease diversity warriors like Jesse Jackson; Yahoo cheerfully noted that it got a perfect score for LGBT equality.
The H-1B visa issue is a small one in the grand scheme of things (perhaps not so small to Eric Cantor right now), and it will ultimately matter very little when people judge Kevin McCarthy’s tenure as majority leader. But it does illustrate one of the small ironies and petty hypocrisies of American politics. As long as Silicon Valley firms try to serve two masters, they will tie themselves in ever more tangled knots.