Throughout 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC” or “Commission”) has been examining initiatives to identify and attempt to rectify a perceived lack of diversity in the workplace. The EEOC has, in particular, identified the technology industry as an area where significant strides can be made to create a more diverse workforce.
Following a May 18, 2016, public meeting on diversity in the technology industry, the EEOC issued a “Diversity in High Tech” report (“Report”) summarizing research on the lack of diversity in the “high-tech sector,” defined as industries that employ a high concentration of employees in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) occupations and the production of goods and services advancing the use of electronic and computer-based production methods. The Report highlighted several demographic trends within the industry, generally showing that the high-tech sector is still predominantly white, male, and under 40 years old. Citing the high-tech sector as “a major source of economic growth fueling the U.S. economy,” the Report also identified demographic differences among the types of positions within the industry, noting that African Americans and Hispanics were disproportionately underrepresented in leadership positions in technology jobs.
According to the Report, the lack of diversity in the labor force within the high-tech sector can be attributed to the demographics of graduates with STEM degrees. Nearly 70 percent of graduates in engineering, mathematics, and computer science are men. While the Obama administration has included STEM education as a priority, the current graduates in STEM fields are significantly less diverse than in the general labor market.
Further, more than half of the women working at STEM companies in the high-tech sector eventually leave or do not advance within the STEM industry. The Report attributed women’s exit from the high-tech sector to an “inhospitable” work culture, isolation, work styles incompatible with the “firefighting” style generally rewarded, long hours and travel, and a glass-ceiling effect.
While the high-tech sector originated in Silicon Valley, the scope of this industry has grown across the United States. To see whether the diversity statistics differed at the epicenter of high tech, the Report further analyzed the labor force within Silicon Valley. The labor force generally in Silicon Valley is split evenly between men and women; however, within the tech industry, it becomes a 70-30 split in favor of men. While Asian Americans fared better within Silicon Valley than across the national survey for professional jobs, white men “dominated” leadership positions across the nation and even more significantly in Silicon Valley.
While the Report is valuable in highlighting changes that are necessary to create a more diverse workforce within the technology industry, the EEOC’s public meeting made clear that the Commission expects technology companies to address what it perceives to be the implicit and unconscious biases leading to the current demographics. In many technology start-ups, hiring practices and human resources policies are generally among the last concerns in growing companies; thus, companies recruit via word of mouth or weed out certain categories of candidates, such as older workers, leading to a more homogenous workforce. The findings stated in the Report and at the public meeting should encourage emerging companies to consider employee issues at the forefront, rather than as a secondary concern.
In Silicon Valley, where the lack of diversity is amplified within the high-tech sector, changes in California law may encourage employers to recruit from a more diverse pool of candidates. At the end of June, the California Legislature passed an amendment to the Equal Pay Act that, if signed by the governor, would provide a cause of action for a differential in pay on the basis of race or ethnicity unless the employer can show that the difference is based on a bona fide factor other than race or ethnicity. (The California Equal Pay Act was also recently amended to protect women more strongly against pay differentials.)
In addition to the Report, recently proposed EEOC guidance on national origin discrimination and the EEOC’s updated proposed rule to include salary bands on the annual EEO-1 report demonstrate the Commission’s commitment to encouraging a more diverse and inclusive workforce. The EEOC’s in-depth look at the high-tech sector should induce technology employers to review hiring practices and audit the diversity within their workforce, as the EEOC’s enforcement of systemic discrimination has increased significantly over the past 10 years.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter “Five Trending Challenges Facing Employers in the Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Industry.”