The immigration debate has once again taken center stage on Capitol Hill following President Obama’s executive action. While Congress should engage and help find bipartisan solutions to the many facets of immigration reform, one easy place to start is an area of clear consensus – the need for more skilled workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM. Increasing diversity and creating opportunities for qualified minorities should be a top focus of the debate.
Silicon Valley and its failures are rightly garnering increased scrutiny and attention. Many have noted the Valley’s advocacy on behalf of immigration reform to bolster the number of available tech workers. But while the efforts of firms like Google and Facebook to reform our nation’s broken immigration system are certainly laudable, these companies also have a large blind spot when it comes to filling out their workforces with diverse talent.
From tech powerhouses like Google to the venture capital firms that form the lifeblood of entrepreneurial success, Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. At most major tech companies (especially those without any retail stores) minorities make up approximately five percent of the workforce.
Even worse, the proportion of minority employees working in the tech divisions of those companies is even lower. This is despite the fact that minorities are graduating from educational programs at twice the rate that Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and others are hiring them.
In order to address this imbalance, DiverseTech, an organization that I co-founded, has committed itself to a campaign dedicated to promoting awareness of the need for increased diversity within the technology industry. Through collaborations with industry leaders, experts and key organizations within the field, we seek to increase the public’s awareness about the shortage of minority representation within the tech industry.
We cannot do this alone. For decades civil rights leaders in Congress have played a critical role in advocating for social justice reforms to improve the quality of opportunities available to minorities in our society. Whether through legislative action or working directly with constituents in their communities, Congressional leaders have a key role to play in leveling the playing field in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs nationwide.
This is crucial for several reasons. First, minorities cannot reap the full benefits of the tech revolution if they are stuck as consumers with no input on the development of these revolutionary products. Unemployment and poverty in black communities is one of our country’s most pervasive problems, and opening new avenues in sectors like the tech industry are vital for overcoming this ongoing issue.
Second, multiple studies have shown that companies with diverse workforces and leadership ranks outperform their competition. This is not just a matter of making minorities more competitive in the modern workforce, but our companies more innovative and successful. In order for our country to remain competitive in the 21st century economy, we need to take advantage of our entire workforce’s potential, not just certain subsets.
Both of these issues are of vital national interest, and by working with groups like DiverseTech and other partners who have made increasing diversity in Silicon Valley a top priority, Congress can make it clear that in the modern economy, diversity is not a luxury or nice-to-have but a must for tech companies with immense market power that want to sell their products and services to everyone – not just white men that make up the majority of their employment rolls. Google and other companies have committed themselves to ensuring that the tech revolution benefits all Americans, but minority workers depend on groups like ours and their elected representatives to hold these companies accountable.
We have just started to figure out solutions to this persistent problem. That means getting input from every party involved as we come up with the right answers. No issue of this magnitude will get solved without Congressional pressure and focus, and by engaging more in this debate Congress can help move the conversation forward in a productive and urgent manner.
White is a former special assistant for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and national diversity advocate.