A unusual forum held in the nation’s capital last week signals growing regulatory interest in the technology industry’s hiring and promotion practices.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held the May 18 meeting about diversity in the industry as it released a report confirming what everyone already knows: tech is mostly white, male and young.
Does the hearing suggest the EEOC may soon come down on tech employers with formal guidance or even enforcement action? Labor lawyers say no — at least for now.
“I think the EEOC’s goal is to keep the issue in the spotlight,” says Erin M. Connell, a partner and employment lawyer at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in San Francisco who testified at the forum.
The effort continues a campaign by civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson to pressure tech companies to become more diverse — and transparent — in employment, she notes.
Industry leaders “are hitting this at all levels,” says Connell, who counts many technology companies as clients. “They want to improve their numbers — because of the public pressure, because of the moral imperative … and because there’s a business case for diversity.”
Research has shown that “companies with higher diversity have better business results,” Connell says. This is particularly true when they serve — as tech companies do — a diverse population of customers.
The EEOC report looked at diversity data for the industry nationally as well as in Silicon Valley. It finds that whites account for 69 percent of the U.S. tech workforce, compared to 63 percent in all private employment. Among executives and managers in tech, 83 percent are white.
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Asian Americans also are overrepresented, compared to their share of all private employment. About 14 percent of tech employees, and 11 percent of tech managers and executives, are Asian American. That compares to 6 percent of workers across all industries.
Hispanic and black workers are, as a result, underrepresented in tech, often dramatically. And so are women: They account for 36 percent of all tech workers and 20 percent of executives and managers in tech, compared to nearly half of all jobs in private industry.
Though the report did not break down workers by age, another panelist at last week’s forum offered a scorching appraisal of the role age bias plays in the industry.
“Job postings declaring a preference for new or recent graduates are common, and some companies have actually specified which graduating class they are seeking,” said Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with the AARP Foundation, according to an EEOC news release.
Panelists didn’t necessarily agree about the best strategy for the industry to diversify. Some who testified put an emphasis on reform of industry hiring and funding practices. A cloistered world of CEOs and venture capitalists who look and think like each other perpetuates the problem, some argued. Greater emphasis on techniques to minimize unconscious hiring bias could help, they said.
Connell and others argued that improved educational opportunities are key, including industry-sponsored tech boot camps for girls and minority youth. Closing the gap in employment requires enlarging the pipeline of young people interested in the industry, she says.
In any case, Connell says she sees no sign that the EEOC plans to do more than nudge the industry to improve.
“It’s never off the table — I don’t want to give any false comfort there,” Connell says. But “I did not get the sense that any enforcement mechanisms are on the horizon.”