EEOC Focuses on Diversity Issues in High-Tech Sector

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By Kevin McGowan

May 18 — The U.S. high-technology sector lags behind other American industries in terms of hiring and promoting female, black and Hispanic workers, witnesses told the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

At a May 18 EEOC meeting examining diversity and inclusion in the high-tech sector, Chair Jenny Yang (D) said the industry represents a major source of economic growth and high-paying jobs. But women, some racial minorities and older workers aren't sharing in the boom, she said. Instead, the situation for women and some racial minorities has “in many ways gotten worse” than 30 years ago, when those groups comprised a larger share of the high-tech workforce, Yang said.

The EEOC released a study based on tech companies' 2014 employer information reports (EEO-1 forms) that shows how white, male workers dominate the top jobs in tech companies both nationally and in California's Silicon Valley region. Although Asian Americans fare well in hiring for professional jobs in the tech sector, they are less well-represented in executive positions, said Ron Edwards, the EEOC's director of program research and surveys.

Age discrimination also “appears particularly entrenched” in the high-tech sector, as some employers “boast” about their “lack of age diversity” as a recruiting tool, said Laurie McCann, an attorney for the AARP Foundation in Washington.

Job advertisements explicitly seeking “digital natives” and applications requiring candidates to indicate their birth dates or college graduation dates or disqualifying those with too many years of work experience send the message that older workers aren't desired, McCann said.

It Starts in School

Factors contributing to the lack of gender and racial diversity include educational background, witnesses said. The “gender gap” in high-tech employment is “getting bigger, not smaller” in part because fewer women are getting computer science degrees, said Kweilin Ellingrud, a partner with McKinsey & Co. in Minneapolis.

In 1980, women earned 37 percent of all computer science degrees but in 2014, women earned only 18 percent of such degrees, Ellingrud said. In 2014, black students earned just over 4 percent of all computer science degrees conferred while Hispanic students earned about 7 percent of such degrees, said Erin Connell, a partner with Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe in San Francisco.

The U.S. faces an imminent “tech talent shortage” as 1.4 million computing jobs will be available by 2020 but only 400,000 U.S. workers with the relevant skills are available to fill those jobs, Ellingrud said. Women and racial minority workers could fill those jobs, but barriers other than the correct college degrees could impede them, she said.

A McKinsey study found many girls and young women have a “confidence gap” regarding their computing skills and perceive high-tech jobs as boring, Ellingrud said. Helping high-tech companies create “a more robust pipeline” for female and minority workers could be part of the solution, she said. Also, giving all students in elementary and secondary schools greater access to computer science studies could help broaden the pool of potential high-tech workers, she said.

Some of the most promising tech company diversity initiatives focus on education, said Connell, who represents high-tech employers. Companies also are changing their recruiting practices and attempting to foster “cultures of inclusion,” she said.

Some tech companies have adopted a version of pro football's “Rooney Rule,” which requires the consideration of at least one minority or female candidate for specific job openings, including management positions, Connell said. High-tech employers also are training employees on “unconscious bias,” conducting internal pay analyses to eliminate sex- or race-based disparities and adopting generous paid family leave policies, she said.

In the long term, it's critical to address the education gap between men and women in computer science and related fields, Connell said.

Money Men Contribute to Problem

It's not just a pipeline issue that's causing the gender and racial disparities in high-tech employment, said Benjamin Jealous, a partner with Kapor Capital, a venture capital firm in Oakland.

Rather, the predominance of white men who work as venture capitalists bankrolling high-tech startups tends to perpetuate the industry's relative lack of diversity, Jealous said.

About 92 percent of the founders of venture capital firms are men and in Silicon Valley, more than 80 percent of those receiving start-up funds are white, he said.

Similar to the tech industry as a whole, the venture capitalists engage in “pattern matching,” meaning they favor people similar to those they funded before, and in “university preference,” tending to back people who graduated from a short list of elite colleges, Jealous said.

The venture capitalists “play a role in making even worse” an industry system that already tends to exclude or discount women and people of color, said Jealous, a former NAACP president and CEO.

It's important for high-tech companies to lead efforts to diversify their own workforces, Jealous said. Among other steps, he recommended more outreach to historically black universities and colleges, greater use of internships and mentors, and diversity commitment agreements like those his venture capital firm requires of startups that it backs financially.

Social Networking Can Be Barrier

During a question period, Commissioner Constance Barker (R) asked how high-tech companies could be made more receptive to hiring older workers.

They could include an age component in their internal diversity plans, if they have one, McCann of the AARP Foundation said. The companies also should examine and amend their job ads to remove items that deter older applicants and hire based on relevant qualifications rather than ageist stereotypes, she said.

The AARP Foundation currently is litigating an age discrimination case challenging a tech industry employer's refusal to hire anyone with more than seven years' work experience, McCann said. If an appropriate case arises, the group also would challenge employers' use of applications that require date of birth or date of college graduation, McCann said.

Tech companies take seriously their “non-discrimination” obligation regarding age, management attorney Connell said. The companies when hiring generally are focused on applicants'“skill sets,” particularly when dealing with new technologies, she said.

There's a “lot of social network recruiting” that can act to the disadvantage of women, people of color and older applicants looking for tech industry jobs, Jealous said.

Citing the testimony about young women not majoring in the relevant sciences, EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum (D) asked if there's an “information gap” about students knowing where the future jobs are.

It's more a public relations gap, replied Ellingrud, the McKinsey partner. The tech industry as a whole doesn't exert a “very strong attraction,” even to women who major in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, she said. Such women appear more inclined to go into medicine, for example, than to join an industry they might perceive as unwelcoming, Ellingrud said.

Commissioner Victoria Lipnic (R) asked if tech companies are using “big data” when hiring and if they might be screening out certain types of applicants.

There's been a lot of focus on how companies are using such online tools, including algorithms set up to screen applicants, Ellingrud replied. Employers generally are “widening the aperture” regarding the types of candidates who can be successful in tech jobs, she said.

The appeal of using algorithms in hiring is it's efficient, Connell said. The vendors of such products advertise that they can reduce “unconscious bias” in employment decisions, but the “devil is in the details,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the EEOC report on the high-tech industry is available at http://src.bna.com/e72. Witnesses' statements are available at https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/meetings/5-18-16/index.cfm.