Despite significant strides to improve equality in business and education, women and minorities still lag significantly behind their white male colleagues in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Lawmakers and representatives from the technology industry gathered Monday on Capitol Hill to launch a new bipartisan caucus to address those issues head-on, encouraging more women and minorities to get into STEM fields and to promote equal opportunities for them.
Just 3 percent of startups in the U.S. are founded by women, and women hold just 25 percent of jobs in STEM fields. Studies have shown that women and minorities not only make fewer pitches to investors, but when they do, are significantly less likely to receive backing when they do.
According to a study from the Center for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire, just 23 percent of all entrepreneurs seeking funding in 2013 were women, and only 7 percent minorities. Of those, 19 percent of women and 13 percent of minorities received angel investments, compared to 22 percent of entrepreneurs overall.
"We have not had enough women or people of color in the tech industry or even joining the tech industry," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., one of the founding co-chairs of the new Diversifying Technology Caucus. "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu, and the more people we can get at the table, it is not just better for them, but for our economy."
Other co-chairs include Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Reps. Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Wash., Barbara Comstock, R-Va., Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Robin Kelly, D-Ill., and Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.
Klobuchar said the new caucus can work to highlight legislation such as the Women and Minorities STEM Booster Act, which facilitates a grant program through the National Science Foundation.
"You can recruit people all you want, but if they feel when they get to a place that they don't belong, and that there's no one there that's going to be their mentor and make sure that they do well in their career, they're not going to stay," she said.
Unequal opportunity is an problem embedded deeply in STEM industries, peaking this fall with the #Gamergate controversy when developer Zoe Quinn and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian became the targets of vicious attacks online, including death threats for decrying sexism in video games.
Julie Samuels, the executive director of the technology entrepreneurship nonprofit Engine, says the caucus can serve to engender a cultural shift that will benefit underrepresented groups as well as the economy as a whole.
"Do we think there's a legislative silver bullet that can fix this problem? No, of course not," she says. "But we think if we get smart people in a room representing policymakers, representing big tech companies, small tech companies, academics and researchers, thinking hard about these issues, that we can come up with some ideas? Yeah, I do think so."
The new caucus will try to leverage lawmakers' roles as conveners to attract attention to these issues, as well as bring potential solutions back to their districts to test in the real world.
"We want to help amplify what's working and what's not working," Samuels says.
Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who says he will join the new caucus, said he's seen the very real impact diverse hiring can have through his experience as the owner of a tech firm, Farenthold Consulting, a computer and Web design company.
"You've got to have a situation where the opportunity is available to everyone," he says. "Because I'm a dude in the tech industry. Some of my best employees have been females. ... I made an effort to recruit folks and bring them up."
While Farenthold acknowledges that technology itself had in many ways made it easier for women and minorities to break into the industry, thanks to the anonymity of the Internet, obstacles remain.
"In this day and age, there are getting to be fewer and fewer [barriers], but we need to wipe them all out," he says. "You shouldn't worry if you're a Hispanic or a female going to the bank that you're going to be treated differently than a white male."
"Every time I think we're over it, I see something and go, 'Oh, apparently we're not,'" he says. "You really do need to be blind to race and gender when you're hiring and you're shooting yourself in the foot if you don't."