The Gross Gender Imbalance in the Visa Program for Skilled STEM Workers


On Monday, a whopping four members of the Senate Judiciary Committee convened to hear testimony about the H-1B visa program, which helps U.S. employers temporarily employ foreign workers in highly-specialized occupations. These are usually STEM occupations, and, according to yesterday’s stark testimony from engineer Karen Panetta, the proliferation of the H-1B visa program is fostering sexist hiring trends particularly in science and technology fields.

Panetta, the vice president for communications and public awareness for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in the United States of America, told the committee that the I.E.E.E.-U.S.A. “strongly endorses” a recent proposal from Microsoft “to pay a total of $25,000 in fees to take foreign STEM graduates from their student visa to a green card.” This would eliminate tech companies’ headlong rush to snap up as many H-1Bs as possible, and the H-1B program, explained Panetta, has effectively been used to discriminate against female STEM employees. Panetta noted the well-known gender imbalance in STEM fields as a big part of the reason why H-1B visas “skew disproportionately toward men,” explaining that, since the H-1Bs largely get gobbled up by science and engineering employers in order to hire foreign talent, the visa program is having the effect of boxing female workers out of STEM fields.

Her testimony (an excerpt of which was republished and edited by Quartz) included concerns that the H-1B visa, which workers must reapply for if they leave or are terminated from their jobs in the U.S., has a demonstratively negative impact on families, since it doesn’t grant temporary worker status to an employee’s spouse or children. Panetta also admitted that, though going the green card route can prove expensive for employers, an employer should be willing to make a more substantial commitment to a foreign worker if that worker has skills so valuable they couldn’t be found in a U.S. employee.

Here we come to the insidious, capitalistic appeal of the H-1B, which had been widely reported on in the run-up to Monday’s hearing: the H-1B gives U.S. employers signifcant negotiating leverage over foreign workers. There are currently 85,000 H-1Bs made available every year, and Congress will soon debate whether or not to increase that quota to 300,000.

Most of those visas are grabbed very quickly by about 15-20 tech companies, according to a PRI report from March 6, not the high-profile Silicon Valley companies who make all of our sexy modern conveniences. So-called “workhorse” companies such as Infosys (which produces the tech industry’s “unglamorous connective tissue”) seek out a lot of H-1Bs partly because H-1Bs hamstring foreign workers, reducing their leverage in salary negotiations.

From the PRI report (which names Microsoft as a major supporter of the increase in the H-1B quota):

So, why does the US need to import labor for this lower-skilled work? Matloff says it has to do with wages and immobility. He argues that since employers sponsor H-1Bs visas, foreigners have a limited ability to negotiate higher salaries or switch jobs. If they do manage to change employers, it means they must restart any green card applications. Matloff says these realities “handcuff” H-1B visa holders to their employers.

Ahh, the grim realities of our beloved free market system! Panetta’s testimony acknowledged the prevailing sentiment that H-1Bs help protect American jobs, though she insisted the facts show that, in many cases, H-1Bs make it easier for employers to replace American jobs with outsourcing. Committing to a green card, she argued, would help prove that a company really, truly needs a foreign worker’s peculiar skill set and isn’t just looking for a comparably low wage, indentured servant alternative to an American worker.

Her most damning assessment of the H-1B program, however, is the way in which it hampers independent American women from gaining traction in STEM fields when so many foreign competition exists, and H-1Bs make so much of that foreign labor relatively inexpensive for tech companies:

It is hard to get promoted when you don’t get hired in the first place. The existence of this preferred pipeline for new hires has a hugely discouraging effect on independent American women considering STEM fields.
Why? Because my own experience tells me that the vast majority of H-1B workers are men and this does not make for a diverse workforce or work environment.
IEEE-USA represents more American high tech workers than anybody else. One member from inside the industry, looking at the offshoring companies that dominate the H-1B program, tells us that global hiring is 70% [men]. But in the US, where outsourcing companies get more than half the capped H-1B visas, the ratio is more like 85% men. Shouldn’t this raise a red flag?

The I.E.E.E.-U.S.A. has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Homeland Security to get more hard data on the gender breakdown of H-1B visas, though Panetta also accused the Dept. of Homeland Security of “stonewalling” the request, a charge denied by a spokesman for the the department.

Gender Bias Seen in Visas for Skilled Workers [NY Times]

A female engineer told Congress today that H-1B visas are sexist and should be replaced with green cards [Quartz]

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