H1-B visa program has a gender gap problem

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While there are nearly as many women as men in the general population in technical fields women are often less than 20 percent of the work force and in some engineering and science fields (physics) they hold less than 10% of the positions. Moreover, few women are in leadership roles in STEM companies. Although more women are getting Ph.D.s than men, a recent study conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports that they're less likely to enter and remain in scientific careers (AAAS, 2010). The bottom line according to AAAS director Shirley Malcoms’ congressional testimony in September 2010: “Gender still matters with regard to women being able to succeed and advance in science.”

Senate Resolution 169 suggests that the doors be flung open using H-1B visas for more skilled workers from other countries to fill the need here in the United States. But who are these workers? The data shows that most are men, as high as 85 percent hired by U.S. companies who are in turn the most typical to move jobs off-shore. These are estimates as there are no statistics on the number of visas. The New York Times reported earlier this month that a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said that there is not a gender-based cap for H-1B visas, and that gender is not taken into account when deciding who qualifies for the program, thus they do not have this data readily available.

With this background, I believe that the H1-B program does not support American women in STEM. Expanding the program will likely bring more of the same: searching the world for qualified (read men) workers. Rather we should be investing in and supporting all of our available employees, especially women. While the pipeline is leaky, there are many women ready to take a position in the technology industry. Our research at George Washington University shows that many qualified women leave science because the field is often "chilly" and not family friendly. Rather than expand the number of H1-B visas, support for childcare, family leave, and retraining for those who have had to step off the career path for family reasons should be expanded.  What would make the program more relevant to women is if the employers filing for current H-1B's were required to allocate an equal sum of money to creating apprentice/internship opportunities at their companies for women who are trying to build an on-ramp into the workforce after taking a few years off for child/elder care. This could be in the form of apprenticeships that train women with technical backgrounds in the latest h skills most relevant to the employer for a period of time (e.g. six months) and then absorb them as full time employees if they meet/or exceed the bar set for them. Paid apprenticeships would help women cover some of the child/elder care costs which typically fall to them.

Expanding the H1-B visa program has additional subtle impacts related to women. Again, the research shows that women are not aggressive negotiators (Women Don't Ask, Linda Babcock, 2007.) but the visa ties the immigrant to a specific employer giving the employer an advantage in the relationship between the employee and the employer. A U.S. citizen may well try to find a new job if too badly treated. An H-1B visa holder, especially a woman, likely would not. The employer knows this and this has an implicit impact on any women in the program. Additionally, holders of H-1B visas are usually paid less than their colleagues. This depresses wages. Furthermore, women who work in technology tend to cluster at the lower-paid jobs, and this just depresses their wages further. 

Our pipeline for STEM workers needs to be expanded. This means changes and supports in education to increase the flow of students from the earliest ages through advanced degrees in fields related to STEM. Programs such as those outlined in “Why So Few?” from the AAAS advocates for changes in how we teach science and math as well as how we address the inherent biases toward and stereotypes of women STEM. Programs such as the NSF Scholarship for Service where two years of higher education tuition is provided for study in cyber security in return for two years of federal employment could increase the pipeline in this field as well as others in STEM.

In short, is there a challenge to the United States’ ability to remain at the forefront of technology innovation and development?  Yes! Expanded H1-B visa program? No!

Heller is an associate provost for Academic Affairs and professor in the Computer Science Department at George Washington University, and director of the Elizabeth Somers Women’s Leader Program.