Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Stop Giving Work Visas To Men

Imagine devising a scheme that was to intentionally keep women in their "place".  This "place" can be assumed to be the home, the kitchen, or some sort of volunteer caregiving role. What could this dastardly misogynist conspiracy plan to do?

In order to be effective, the scheme could do a number of things:
  • Ensure men remain 'breadwinners' by restricting ability to work
  • Make education inaccessible or prohibitively expensive
  • Tie all kinds of legal rights to male companionship
Unfortunately, these systems are not actually imaginary. They are quite plentiful. They can be assumed to exist in the comically patriarchal, often theocratic, societies that exist on our varied planet. What is more surprising is that biased institutions can exist in "progressive" nations.

A decent example of a system keeping women in their place is the immigration systems of many wealthy nations. And the largest problem is not adhoc systems designed to facilitate the needs of refugees - but rather the systems designed with intention to allow people already desired by the capitalists of the nation.

Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, allow the spouses on dependent visas to work without much fuss. While status is still subordinate to the primary visa holder, the simple right to work is notable as it is not necessarily a given. Certain tiers of visa categories in the United States, for example, will disallow a spouse from working even if they have been a resident for almost a decade. Even after "reform", applying for work status for a spouse is conditional on being in a queue to be granted permanent resident status. Each step is tentative and byzantine.

It's admittedly not the end of the world having to rely on a flimsy patchwork of boring forms before one can get a job. A career is not the only dimension to life. One can choose to pass the time with meaningful study. Unfortunately, this is often a non-starter due to spouses being considered 'international' or 'non-resident' students at many academic institutions and subject to special fee multipliers that rarely attempt to be numbers that could be described as modest.

Observant individuals may suggest that the immigration systems are not strictly designed to create unbalance - they are simply based on the institution of marriage and realities of the workforce. Each component works according to some internal logic, and let the chips fall where they may.

This reasoning does not suffice, as skilled immigration systems are an artifact created by government that does not need to be bound to some 'natural order' of the economy. Immigration systems are often elements of trade agreements and experiments in social engineering.

And there is some evidence that some tweaks could be worthwhile. One such tweak that is often made is caps - Britain has a current total Tier 2 outside-Europe quota of somewhere around 20,000 a year, with a further 30,000 using intra-company transfer rules. The United States has a H1B cap of 65,000 a year, with a similar number of annual applicants using intra-company transfer rules.

Many people are advocating for a raise in immigration limits - tech companies especially want the limits to go up. More skilled workers is good for people wishing to invest. Immigration is generally good for business -- but not for labour. Unions and established populations of middle class workers are not generally excited about the possibility of the migrant workforce doubling in size.

Certain "progressive" groups have criticized the explosive growth of the tech sector in terms of "gentrification" and the privatization of services. Certain companies in San Francisco, for example, can be said to be both importing the world's best talent and literally moving them around the city with a private and exclusive network of buses and other transportation services unavailable to the public.

But in strictly feminist terms, work visa programs are not helping matters - and may in fact be harming the push for "women in tech".

There is a clear gender bias in distribution of work visas:

Karen Panetta, the vice president for communications and public awareness for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in the United States of America, testified in her prepared remarks that “the vast majority of H-1B workers are men.”
[...]
“The I.E.E.E.-U.S.A. represents more American high-tech workers than anybody else, so we have sources,” Ms. Panetta said Monday afternoon. “One from inside the industry, looking at the offshoring companies that dominate the H-1B program, is that their global hiring is 70 percent men.” But in the United States, where outsourcing companies get more than half of the limited number of H-1B visas, she added, “the ratio is more like 85 percent men.

Before we assume the worst, let's step back for a moment and think about what could be creating the large disparity. The hiring bias could overweight companies with relatively low-skill information technology services. That is, the overwhelmingly male workforce might not be engineers, scientists and programmers. It could be that the "top tier" market leading technology companies are employing more women.

Thankfully, companies like Google publish their diversity numbers so we can find out:


Google's EEO report seems to put their US based workforce at 32,000, with other sources putting their global workforce at 57,000. The above breakdown, like most "women in tech" discussion, is US only - therefore let's focus on the 32,000 total US employees.

It's unclear from the charts and tables how many people are considered "tech" workers. To be quite generous to the role, let's assume that the overall number of the 32,000 that are considered is nearly two thirds - and arrive at a nice round 20,000 tech employees.

It turns out that in 2014, Google was granted around 2,000 H1Bs. If earlier assumptions are true, this would mean Google fills about 10% of its tech current workforce from a single skilled worker visa category. If we were to consider employees on a different status or "graduates" of a work visa program, the percentage may be higher.

For the sake of expedience, let's continue with the assumption that 10% of Google's tech workforce is currently H1B. It is a reasonable guess that also explains to some degree why Asians are currently over-represented in the above data - for comparison, the state of California is only 15% Asian while Google's tech workforce is 35%. What does Google think about this?

It turns out, Google has been wanting to have more H1B employees for many years now. In 2008, Google published the following rant:

As was the case last year, tens of thousands of highly skilled individuals hoping to work in the United States recently learned that they'll be unable to do so. About 163,000 H-1B applications were filed this year, significantly more than the 65,000 cap. Those lucky enough to win the H-1B lottery will be allowed to work in the U.S., but the rest will be turned away.
As for Google, this year we submitted 300 H-1B applications, and we're sorry to report that 90 hopefuls were denied. The yearly H-1B lottery continues to affect our employees and our business, which is why we continue to urge the U.S. government to increase the artificially low cap on these visas.
We realize that many people have strong views on the topic of immigration. Some commenters to our recent post on H-1Bs criticized Google for not hiring more Americans. Although we're committed to hiring outstanding American candidates, Google hires employees based on skills and qualifications, not on nationality. Many times our strongest candidates are Americans; in fact, about nine out of ten of our U.S.-based employees are citizens or permanent residents. But if we're to remain an innovative company -- one that is creating jobs in the U.S. every day -- we also need to hire exceptional candidates who happen to have been born elsewhere. After all, if we were to hire only U.S.-born talent, we would effectively close ourselves off from most of the world's population, and tools like Google News and orkut (both of which were invented by former H-1B visa holders) may have never been developed.
[Note: "nine out of ten" is in line with our estimates above.]

[...]
We continue to urge the U.S. government to raise the H-1B cap, to ensure that we and other American companies are able to attract, hire, and retain the world's top talent.

The plea strikes at many cosmopolitan sentiments in American culture - examples of immigrants creating great things, the need for growth and innovation. And it comes with a built in message of diversity, in which Google does not "see" nationality.

While tech companies may not see nationality, they have a hard time demonstrating that they do not see gender. Effectively what is said is that tech companies need to be able to sift through the world's 7.3 billion people in order to succeed.

It just so happens that the vast majority of the clever people they happened to find are men.

The demand that tech companies stop importing dudes is easily dismissed as quasi-racist and xenophobic. Arguments about potential good or bad economic impact are a dead end - trying to disallow companies from hiring foreign talent is simply a politically dead concept when the status quo at these companies does a decent job of lobbying and producing Presidential candidates.

But maybe there is a solution that would make everyone happy - mandate that companies need a nearly perfect gender balance in their current allotment of skilled work visas.

It's not an unimplementable idea. All a business would possibly need to do to get another man into the country is create a position of equivalent pay for a woman of the same nationality. Rules already in force in the United States and United Kingdom already ensure there is not a wage gap between a citizen and an immigrant, so there is already precedent demonstrating that corporations can quite readily comply with similar wage schemes.

Who would be opposed to such a law? The only opposition to the creation of a position for a skilled foreign man is the creation of an equivalent position for a woman from his country.

There are many reasons that enforced quotas have a tendency to create unpredictable negative side effects. These side effects can include fraud, jealousy and perverse incentives. There are many good reasons to not enforce 50/50 gender balance regulations in an all-encompassing manner. It's difficult to imagine that it would work out exactly the way we anticipate.

In the realm of immigration, however, the game changes. It's already subject to quotas. It's already a relatively small segment of the economy. And skilled worker visas deal with a very unique segment of the world's population - it deals with groups that are privileged to some extent, but also not subject to entitlements created for the citizenry of the host nation. To be clear, skilled workers are not refugees, work visas are not another version of asylum. If manipulating work visa quotas are a slippery slope to more draconian social policy, so is changing a speed limit.

Go forth, scour the globe. Extract top talent from the world's nations and enlist them in one's rabidly capitalist desires.

But please do find some women. Alright?

Happy headhunting.

1 comment:

  1. I don't understand why we have to operate under the premise that there needs to be more women in tech, to be honest. The notion of perfect gender equality in every profession seems unrealistic and in defiance of human nature. Making money is still a greater concern for men than women for a variety of reasons and I don't see why there needs to be some symbolic gesture to show how women are capable of the same things as men. As long as the women who truly have a passion for a career and the capability to do it are not impeded, I fail to see why the rest matters.

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