The people most affected by the tech layoffs

Overall, these layoffs are a body blow to diversity in tech, not just slowing but actually reversing hard-won gains.

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So far, the current wave of tech layoffs has directly affected more than 153,000 people in 2023. But it’s had a disproportionate impact on women, people of color, and people in the United States on H1-B visas. Overall, these layoffs are a body blow to diversity in tech, not just slowing but actually reversing hard-won gains.

Of those who lost their jobs in the most recent round of layoffs, 45% were women—which doesn’t sound bad until you remember that less than a third of tech industry roles and less than a quarter of tech leadership roles are filled by women. Other underrepresented groups, especially Black tech workers, have also been impacted at outsize rates. And the layoffs have revealed cracks in an immigration system that hasn’t been overhauled since LISTSERV was born.

Women and people of color are more likely to have jobs perceived as expendable

Women and people of color aren’t being laid off at higher rates because we were dead-weight DEI hires in the first place. According to Sarah Kaplan, director of the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy, it’s because “the roles that historically underrepresented groups are hired into tend to be seen as the most expendable.”.

This includes less technical roles and ones perceived as less prestigious or farther from the product—like field and customer support, human resources, communications, and marketing. “Overall, definitely nontechnical roles are more affected, women are more affected,” Reyhan Ayas, a senior economist at Revelio Labs, told The Washington Post.

The rise of remote work during the pandemic allowed more women and people of color to enter the tech workforce because remote work made barriers like childcare and unaffordable housing within commuting distance of the office easier to overcome. At Meta, for instance, US hires for remote roles in 2022 were more likely to be people of color, while global hires were more likely to be women. But when companies make cuts, remote workers may be more likely to lose their jobs—they certainly feel more anxious about it, according to Harvard Business Review. Since companies often follow the “last in, first out” rule when determining which jobs to cut, recently hired remote workers—more likely to be women and people of color—are often the first to be laid off.

The reasons why roles seen as less technical and/or less prestigious tend to be stacked with representatives of underrepresented groups are manifold and complex, including structural barriers like historical access to education and economic resources, geographic location, social conditioning in school, and cultural and familial expectations. But the result is that industry-wide layoffs fall disproportionately on people who are already underrepresented in tech.

Our immigration system is failing H-1B visa holders

For foreign-born tech employees in the US on H1-B visas, a layoff isn’t just a job loss: it can uproot their entire lives, and their families’ lives. The H-1B visa program allows people with specialized skills who are sponsored by an employer to come to the US to live and work. H1-B visa holders can stay in the US for no longer than six years unless an employer sponsors their permanent residency (their green card).

The number of H-1B visas awarded is capped at 85,000, and big tech companies account for a hefty percentage of these, with nearly 70% of the visas going to people in “computer-related” roles. Because only a limited number of employment-based residency applications can be granted every year, people can wait decades for a green card, tying H1-B visa holders to the same employer for years and making them especially vulnerable in the event of layoffs.

When someone on an H1-B visa is laid off, they have 60 days to secure sponsorship with another employer or leave the country. “These visa holders have built lives here for years, they have a home, and children, and personal and professional networks that extend for years,” Linda Moore, president and CEO of TechNet, told WIRED. When the companies responsible for sponsoring most H1-B visas are the same companies laying off workers, the system fails the workers (and the companies) it exists to serve.

Part of the problem is we’re using a legacy system from the 80s. The H1-B system hasn’t changed substantially in more than 35 years, writes Anna Kramer for WIRED, but in those decades, the US has become a dominant presence in science and technology, a rise fueled in large part by foreign-born talent. The immigration system hasn’t evolved along with the reality of the industry, and that creates problems—not just for individuals, but for companies and the industry as a whole.

“Tech companies have invested decades and millions of dollars into lobbying for kinder rules and an increase in the number of visas available, and in sponsoring hundreds of thousands of workers,” writes Elliott. “Yet the process remains unchanged, and layoffs mean some skilled workers that companies may want to hire from competitors either now or in future will instead leave the country.” And that’s our loss.

A problem for everyone

The erosion of diversity in tech is a problem for everyone, not just individual members of underrepresented groups. “If you don’t have a diverse workforce, you’re going to get technologies that exacerbate inequalities in our society,” Kaplan told Fast Company, referring to technologies like AI-powered facial recognition or credit score assessment. “We should care that the tech sector is not diverse, because it’s creating technologies that shape our lives.”

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