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Coder group: H-1Bs behind women's decline in IT

A programmers' advocacy group offers its own take on a workplace diversity report by an industry organization.

Want to know why women's share of tech jobs is shrinking? Look at the temporary guest workers entering the country, most of whom are male.

That's the case being made by a group that advocates on behalf of U.S. software programmers and opposes H-1B visas. The Programmers Guild plans to release a report this week that re-examines data from a workforce diversity study published last week by the Information Technology Association of America industry group. Among the guild's arguments: the use of H-1B visas contributes to low shares of information technology jobs held by women and some racial minorities.

"Often employers force their U.S. workers to train their H-1B replacements, under threat of termination for cause and loss of benefits--driving women and underrepresented minorities out of the profession," the report states.

A number of reports, including the recent ITAA study, have documented a decline in women's share of tech jobs. The ITAA found that the percentage of women in the IT workforce dropped from 41 percent in 1996 to 32.4 percent in 2004. That report also discovered that employers hired men at a higher rate than women between 2003 and 2004. The number of unemployed skilled male IT workers dropped 34.4 percent from 189,000 to 124,000, while the number of unemployed skilled female IT workers dropped only 5.2 percent, from 97,000 to 92,000.

According to the ITAA, the declining representation of women is due largely to the fact that one out of every three women in the IT workforce falls into administrative job categories that have experienced significant overall declines in recent years.

The Programmers Guild, though, said a factor in the underrepresentation of women in the IT workforce is that a disproportionate number of H-1B workers are male. The guild cited federal data from 2002, showing that women made up 24 percent of temporary workers and trainees admitted to the country.

H-1Bs, which allow skilled workers to be employed in the United States for up to six years, account for one kind of temporary worker visa. Other such visas are for agricultural workers and nurses.

John Miano, founder of the Programmers Guild professional group, has estimated that more than 180,000 new H-1B workers in the computer field came to the United States between 2001 and 2003, while computer-related jobs in the nation increased by just 27,380.

Bob Cohen, senior vice president at the ITAA, dismissed the guild claim that the influx of predominantly male H-1B workers could explain the drop in women's percentage of the IT workforce. The "assertion is simply that: an assertion," Cohen said in an e-mail. "...the percentage of women in (nonadministrative) IT categories between 1996 and 2004 is roughly the same. We do not think the H-1B program impacts these figures."

H-1B visas have long been a point of debate in the tech industry. Thirty-nine percent of H-1B visa petitions approved in 2003 were for workers in computer-related occupations, with nearly 37 percent of all approvals that year for workers born in India. The program's annual cap of 65,000 visas was expanded last year, with 20,000 additional permits reserved for foreigners with advanced degrees from a U.S. institution.

Industry leaders have defended the visas as a means to fill shortages and give U.S. companies access to international talent as they compete globally. Visa backers, which include the ITAA, also say they serve as a brake on offshoring.

Critics have said the H-1B program undermines U.S. wages, is ripe for abuse and fuels the shift of skilled work overseas.

The guild suggested that the ITAA's own report indicates the visas are undermining America's tech leadership.

"(A)necdotally, the (U.S.) IT industry is experiencing a 'brain drain' among certain foreign-born IT workers who have been working in the U.S. IT work force for years and are now returning to their native countries like India, Pakistan and China to lead major technology companies," the ITAA's report said.

"The ITAA report bolsters the guild's concern that the H-1B visa program is being used by our economic adversaries as a means of gaining tech skills in the U.S. and then returning to their home countries like India and China to lead major technology companies," the guild said.