Diversity of a sort. Photographer: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
Diversity of a sort. Photographer: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Google Inc.'s admission that its almost 50,000-strong workforce is predominantly male and, in the U.S., predominantly white offers a striking statement on equality of opportunity. If other Silicon Valley tech leaders had the courage to publish their staff demographics -- Facebook Inc., for one, doesn't -- they probably wouldn't prove any more diverse.

There is, however, a relatively easy way for the U.S. government to increase diversity at such companies: Open its borders to foreign engineers.

Explaining why there are so few women and blacks at Google, Laszlo Bock, the company's senior vice president of people operations, points out that women earn about 18 percent of all computer science degrees in the U.S. He also cites National Science Foundation data showing that only 5 percent of graduate degree recipients in the discipline in 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, were black and less than 3 percent were Hispanic. A Googler's average age is 29, so graduation data are important: The company hires a lot of brilliant people with little work experience.

Blacks and Hispanics make up 3 percent of Google's U.S.-based tech workforce, on the same order of magnitude as their share of relevant degrees. For Asians, however, there is a striking disparity: According to the NSF, they earned 8.2 percent of all advanced computer science degrees in 2009, yet they make up 34 percent of Google's tech cadre.

So where did all the Asian engineers come from? According to the NSF, in 2009, 46.4 percent of master's degrees in computer science in the U.S. went to temporary residents, whose ethnicities were not listed. It would be reasonable to assume that many of them are Asians. Google, after all, is the 12th-biggest sponsor for H1B visas, which are issued to skilled workers. According to Myvisajobs.com, a website for foreigners seeking employment in the U.S., the company got 2,163 such visas for its workers for 2014. The immigrants can also come to the U.S. on green cards or on special O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities.

Bock strikes an apologetic note when he writes that "Google is miles from where we want it to be" in terms of diversity. But the company's vast ranks of immigrants do represent a sort of diversity, a reflection of the company's meritocratic values. The Asians, and probably many of the whites, on Google's payroll must come from an impressive variety of backgrounds. Diversity doesn't have to be measured in traditional race categories in a company -- Google is one of the 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies founded or co-founded by an immigrant -- where Russians, Chinese, Indians, Ukrainians, Japanese and Thais work side by side.

There are not enough native-born Americans of any gender or skin color who can be Google engineers. Yet the company's efforts to bring in talent from abroad are thwarted by skilled-immigrant quotas that lead to humiliating lotteries for top-flight programmers. With legislation to remedy the situation hopelessly stuck in Congress, Google and its Silicon Valley peers are forced to hire more people for their overseas divisions. The average salary of a Google worker on an H1B visa is $126,565, 2.4 times the median household income. Oddly, the U.S. does not seem interested in more taxes from these highly skilled engineers.

It would be hypocritical to call on Google to improve diversity when the government's own immigration policy is standing in the way.

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.