Democrats for years have pressured Silicon Valley companies to address their poor track records on workforce diversity. Now they’re calling on President-elect Joe Biden to do the same for federal agencies that oversee the tech industry.
Failing to do so, lawmakers and civil rights experts say, could hinder the administration’s efforts to address critical tech issues such as rooting out biases in artificial intelligence and expanding internet connectivity for communities of color.
Lawmakers from across Congress’ top diversity caucuses said in interviews that key to addressing so-called digital equity — the concept that everyone should have access to technology and the opportunities it offers — is making diversity a priority for executive branch roles in science, technology and telecommunications, where women and people of color have historically struggled to gain broad representation.
“It’s going to be important that we have as much diversity as we can have in those decision-making rooms so that we break up the groupthink that has been pervasive for generations now,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who has been active on tech policy issues on Capitol Hill.
Biden has pledged to deliver “the most diverse Cabinet” in U.S. history. Liberal lawmakers have said they plan to hold him to that vow as he fills out the upper echelons of his administration. But it remains to be seen whether that commitment will extend to the lesser-known yet critical gigs steering the government’s approach to technology issues, which Democrats say has traditionally suffered from a dearth of diverse perspectives.
“We expect that commitment to tech to be consistent with those actions we see already,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), a Congressional Hispanic Caucus member.
Democrats’ pressure campaigns have yielded mixed results over the years when it comes to representation in Silicon Valley. Despite lawmakers sending numerous letters and holding hearings scrutinizing tech companies’ diversity records, studies show the tech industry is largely still dominated by white men. But with Biden headed to the White House, Democrats hope that they can have more luck with the federal tech ranks.
Top of mind for the diversity advocates: coveted spots to lead the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Commerce Department’s top telecom agency, along with two expected vacancies for commissioners at the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission.
Together, these entities oversee a broad swath of the executive branch’s approach to technology issues, from enforcing privacy and competition, standards to setting guidelines on federal use of technologies like artificial intelligence, to regulating the nation’s broadband networks.
Democratic lawmakers say a lack of broad representation at those institutions has made it harder to get officials to focus on issues like bias in artificial intelligence systems and algorithms that can lead to racial, ethnic and gender discrimination.
Clarke said that a lack of representation in those roles can lead to “physical biases that most people experience in communities of color [transferring] to virtual biases.”
Facial recognition systems, for example, have been found to more frequently misidentify individuals of color, which lawmakers say serves to essentially automate discrimination when the tools are deployed by law enforcement agencies. Clarke and other lawmakers said a more diverse cast of decision makers in the federal government would put that issue closer to front-and-center.
“The reason you’d want to have a diverse number of tech folks is because, like many other issues, you do have bias in technology … so it’s important to have people with diverse backgrounds who understand this,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
While lawmakers largely declined to single out specific posts they hope to see filled by individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, they broadly pointed to the leadership roles at those agencies and offices as slots where diversity should be a major factor for selections. That’s long been an issue for the nation’s leading tech agencies, said one top researcher.
Nicol Turner Lee, the director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, said it’s “not normally been the case,” particularly for the FTC and for OSTP, to have a diverse cast of leaders steering decisions. That’s led to policymakers in the federal government missing perspectives about how technology intersects with race, ethnicity and other identity markers, Lee said.
“Diversity in political appointments, government agencies — and corporations, for that matter — fill the blind spot that these organizations have when it comes to addressing the particular needs of underserved communities,” Lee said.
Few racial and ethnic minorities have risen to the rank of FTC commissioner in the agency’s 106-year history. Of its current five commissioners, three are men, and only Democrat Rohit Chopra is a person of color.
At OSTP, women and people of color have made up only a small fraction of those who have ascended to top roles, such as the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and permanent OSTP director.
Four of the FCC’s five current commissioners are men, two of whom are minorities: Republican Chair Ajit Pai, the agency’s first Asian American chief, and Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who is African American. Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is the only woman on the commission.
One former female commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, who is African American, has served as the agency’s acting chair, but no woman has held the role in a permanent capacity in the FCC’s 86-year history.
“For too long, many excuses have been used in the tech space … for continuing the status quo,” Clarke said of the lack of diversity atop those agencies and offices.
OSTP spokesperson Elena Hernandez said in a statement that the office is “proudly made up of extremely talented men and women of all backgrounds dedicated to strengthening American leadership in science and technology,” including through initiatives to expand funding for STEM education and for historically Black colleges and universities.
An FTC spokesperson directed inquiries on appointments to the agency to the White House personnel office. Neither organization replied to requests for additional demographic data on their past leaders.
Will Wiquist, an FCC spokesperson, said the commission “has had a diverse set of leaders over the last quarter-century from Bill Kennard to Michael Powell to Mignon Clyburn to Ajit Pai.” Kennard in 1997 became the first African American appointed to serve as FCC chair, and Powell in 2001 became the second African American named FCC chair.
Wiquist said the FCC did not have additional demographic data to share on the past leaders of the agency, which was formed in 1934.
Jamal Brown, a spokesperson for the Biden transition, said in a statement that Biden “is working to build an administration that looks like America.”
He added, “Our team is engaging leaders and organizations to ensure they have a seat at the table in helping to develop and implement the President-elect’s vision, and we will continue over the coming weeks as we work to shape the Biden-Harris administration.”
The lack of diversity in the tech sector — and in science, technology, engineering and math more broadly — is hardly a partisan issue. A bipartisan cast of lawmakers on Capitol Hill have pushed for legislation to expand access to early education in STEM fields for underrepresented individuals. And the federal agencies and offices active on tech have taken steps under both Republican and Democratic administrations to boost diversity in their ranks and in the industries they oversee.
Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), a Congressional Black Caucus member and co-chair of the Tech Accountability Caucus, said it’s especially important for Democrats to live up to the expectations that they themselves have set for the tech industry.
“I’ve written letters along with other members about the lack of diversity on the boards or in the C-suites of a lot of these big tech companies,” she said. “We’ve complained about it and think things should be different, so we need to make sure on the government level that we’re walking the talk.”
But the federal government, which has to compete with high-paying private sector jobs in Silicon Valley, has long struggled to attract top tech talent into its ranks. The pipeline issues in STEM fields have compounded the government’s challenge to attract a diverse cast of qualified candidates.
Fielding a more diverse cast of decision-makers at the federal level alone won’t solve the issues raised by lawmakers either, several of them said. Those officials also must be given greater authority to enact an agenda that reflects those values of inclusivity and equity.
“Now may be the time to think intentionally about a Cabinet-level technology official,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the Congressional Black Caucus’ Tech Diversity Task Force.
Lee suggested that the role, which doesn’t currently exist, could be tasked with developing and executing a national technology agenda.
“A person of color in this role would be transformative and would send a strong signal to the tech sector that we cannot develop technology while leaving some of the best and brightest behind,” she said.
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