Jesse Jackson: Tech diversity is next civil rights step
USA Today’s Desair Brown speaks with Rev. Jesse Jackson on lack of diversity in the tech industry, view at http://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/usanow/2014/07/28/13273261/
U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called on the Obama administration Monday to scrutinize the tech industry's lack of diversity.
"The government has a role to play" in ensuring that women and minorities are fairly represented in the tech workforce, Jackson told a USA TODAY editorial board meeting. He said the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission needs to examine Silicon Valley's employment contracts.
Rev. Jackson spoke after meeting with Labor Secretary Tom Perez to press for a review of H-1B visas, which allow U.S. companies to hire foreigners for specialty jobs. He said data show Americans have the skills and should have first access to high-paying tech work.
"There's no talent shortage. There's an opportunity shortage," he said, calling Silicon Valley "far worse" than many others such as car makers that have been pressured by unions. He said tech behemoths have largely escaped scrutiny by a public dazzled with their cutting-edge gadgets.
No more. Jackson has lobbied nearly two dozen tech companies to disclose hiring data, and about a dozen have done so. The result is sobering: Men make up 62% to 70% of the staffs of Twitter, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn while whites and Asians comprise 88% to 91%, according to company data released in the last two months. Their dominance is highest in computer programming and other tech jobs that tend to pay the most.
"This is the next step in the civil rights movement," Jackson said, noting minorities represent a sizable share of tech consumers but not its workers. He said it's bad business to exclude them. Of Twitter's U.S. employees, only 3% are Hispanic and 5% black, but those groups along with Asian Americans account for 41% of its U.S. users.
To fix the problem, tech companies say they're taking steps such as funding outreach programs like Girls Who Code to encourage women in computer science.
"Like our peers, we have a lot of work to do," Twitter's Janet Van Huyssewrote in a company blog post last week, acknowledging her company is "part of an industry that is marked by dramatic imbalances in diversity." She said it makes "good business sense" for Twitter employees to reflect the diversity of its users.
Pandora and eBay will soon release their hiring data, and Apple has said it will also do so but didn't specify when, according to Butch Wing, a national political coordinator at the Rainbow Push Coalition, an advocacy group founded by Jackson.
Next month, Jackson's group plans to file a freedom-of-information request with the EEOC to acquire employment data for companies that have not yet disclosed it publicly. Those companies include Amazon, Broadcom, Oracle, Qualcomm and Yelp. Wing said Silicon Valley has used the H-1B program to pay many workers half what U.S. counterparts earn.
Reducing labor costs is the primary reason tech employers use foreign workers, according to a 2013 study by Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis. "The claims of shortage and outstanding talent are not supported by the data," he concluded.
Three of four, or 74%, of students earning a bachelor's degree in science, technology, engineering and math - often called STEM - don't work in STEM jobs, the Census Bureau reported this month. The likelihood of landing a STEM job varies by major but includes half of those who majored in engineering and math.
Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, said the industry prides itself on being a meritocracy. "We can, and will, expand our definitions of merit to recognize the importance and value of diversity to our success," he wrote In a recent USA TODAY op-ed piece.
Jackson, 72, discussed tech-sector hiring with the EEOC via phone Monday. The former two-time Democratic presidential candidate said he'll continue pushing the issue and has no plans to retire. "The struggle for emancipation is my life," he said in an interview. "It's my calling."