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How many H-1B workers are female? U.S. won’t say

Sharon Machlis, Patrick Thibodeau | April 4, 2016
Government resistance to releasing H-1B gender data frustrates advocates.

When the U.S. begins accepting applications for new H-1B skilled-worker visas today, we can be certain that tech workers from India will make up a large portion of the requests.

What we probably won't know, though, is how many of those applicants are female.

While program data shows which job categories, countries and companies are awarded the most visas, the federal government says it is not tracking applicants' gender -- although the question is asked on the visa application form. The U.S. begins accepting H-1B visa applications on April 1 for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) will not release the gender data. It has rejected a Senate request for the information, as well as public records requests from the IEEE-USA and Computerworld.

"No H-1B visa should ever be issued to an unidentified person -- and you can't know who a person is without knowing their gender," said Peter Eckstein, the president of the IEEE-USA.

If the USCIS "doesn't know by now, it's because they don't want to know how bad it is," said Eckstein, regarding the gender of H-1B workers.

The IEEE believes a high percentage are male.  

Gender information about H-1B visa holders, critics say, could answer some questions about the program's impact on the workforce.

The Anita Borg Institute, which advocates for women in technology, believes "it would be very helpful to have better data on the gender diversity of H-1B visa recipients," Telle Whitney, the president and CEO of the institute, said in an email.  

"Our anecdotal experience is that most H-1B visa recipients are men and that this can have a negative impact on increasing the participation of women in the technical workforce," said Whitney. "It is likely that this also negatively impacts underrepresented minorities."

Women are underrepresented in technology overall, but particularly worrisome is the talent pipeline. Less than 15% of the bachelor's degrees awarded in 2014 in computer science and computer engineering went to women, according to the Computing Research Association's annual survey of enrollments at Ph.D.-granting institutions.

The best source of data for lawmakers on the gender of H-1B workers has been the IEEE-USA. In 2013, Karen Panetta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University who was representing the IEEE-USA, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and told it that as many as 85% of the visa holders are men.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has unsuccessfully sought information about the gender of H-1B workers, cited Panetta's testimony in seeking an amendment to the 2013 Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Grassley's amendment prohibited all employers from displacing women 180 days before or after they apply for a foreign worker. The amendment failed, although the comprehensive bill passed the Senate. It was not taken up by the House.


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