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Is Oracle Federal Lawsuit Indicative of a Larger Problem in Tech?

Oracle is facing a federal lawsuit for paying white men more than their counterparts, but diversity is an issue that plagues Silicon Valley companies.
Image: The Oracle sign is displayed on a building at the Oracle Corp. headquarters campus in Redwood City, Calif.
The Oracle sign is displayed on a building at the Oracle Corp. headquarters campus in Redwood City, Calif.Michael Short / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Who runs the world? Well, if you ask Beyonce, it's girls.

But in Silicon Valley, which has a number of powerhouse women, diversity ?— or the lack thereof — has remained a pervasive issue.

The U.S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against technology giant Oracle on Wednesday, alleging the company has engaged in a "systemic practice" of paying white men more money than their counterparts with the exact same job.

As a result, this "led to pay discrimination against female, African American and Asian employees," the Department of Labor said in a statement. The company is also accused of "favoring Asian workers in its recruiting and hiring practices for product development and other technical roles, which resulted in hiring discrimination against non-Asian applicants."

Oracle spokeswoman Deborah Hellinger told NBC News in a statement that "the complaint is politically motivated, based on false allegations, and wholly without merit."

"Oracle values diversity and inclusion, and is a responsible equal opportunity and affirmative action employer. Our hiring and pay decisions are non-discriminatory and made based on legitimate business factors including experience and merit," she said.

A similar federal lawsuit was filed against investment bank J.P. Morgan this week, alleging female employees were paid less than men holding the same jobs.

A company spokesperson told Reuters the bank is committed to diversity in the workplace, "disappointed," by the complaint, and looking forward to "presenting our evidence to a neutral decision maker."

The Larger Discussion in Tech

It's no secret that women and minorities are underrepresented in Silicon Valley, especially when it comes to executive roles.

The tech culture in Silicon Valley, "started with white men bringing on their friends and creating a culture and a system where white men thrive and others have a harder time to get their chances to succeed," Ellen Pao, chief diversity and inclusion office at the Kapor Center, a social impact organization based in Oakland, California, told NBC News.

Related: For Women in Corporate America, It's Still a Struggle at the Top

Many technology companies report their diversity composition to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission but, while many have made slow yet steady progress in being more inclusive — especially in technical roles — they've been criticized for not doing more.

"One of the difficulties right now, especially with the larger companies, is this bias is baked into everything they do," Pao said. "How they recruit, how they hire, their interviewing process, performance reviews, a lot of their interactions."

Pao herself has plenty of Silicon Valley experience. She was the former CEO of Reddit. She also notably lost and decided to not appeal a discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2015 after a jury ruled in the company's favor over claims Pao had faced gender discrimination as a partner at the firm.

Related: Apple Says It Has Fixed Gender Pay Gap For Its U.S. Employees

Pao said she advocates a three-pronged approach where fostering inclusion means not just women and minorities, but everyone, including workers living with disabilities, and older employees.

"A lot of companies focus on diversity but not the inclusion piece," she said. "People come in from different backgrounds and end up leaving quickly and not succeeding. The processes need to be inclusive for everyone across the whole company."

Diversity in Trump's America

One key to diversity and innovation in Silicon Valley is the H-1B visa, which allows highly skilled workers — many of whom work in technical fields — to enter the United States. There are only a limited number offered each year.

During the Republican presidential debate in March, Trump said the visas are "something that I frankly use and I shouldn't be allowed to use it. We shouldn't have it. Very, very bad for workers. And second of all, I think it's very important to say, well, I'm a businessman and I have to do what I have to do."

"It's very bad for business in terms of — and it's very bad for our workers and it's unfair for our workers. And we should end it," he clarified.

Charlie Skuba, a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business who also served in the U.S. Department of Commerce under President George W. Bush, was optimistic the program would remain intact when it comes to attracting top foreign tech talent.

Related: Tech Workers Face Uncertain Future Under Trump and Sessions

"It's a classic Washington dilemma where the disagreement on immigration is related to the broader issue," he said. As for H1-B visas, "Who would disagree with bringing the smartest people in the world to the U.S., let them live here and produce new ideas, companies and jobs?" he said. "People disagree when lower-skilled, low-wage workers use the program to get in."

Pao, however, said there is a lot of "uncertainty and fear" in Silicon Valley when it comes to what we can actually expect from the 45th President of the United States.

She mentioned the rise in advocacy groups such as NeverAgain.Tech, which are working to "make sure people are paying attention and looking at how tech can be used, and making sure [the H1-B visa] isn't a tool for exclusionary policies."

"People want to make sure there is a safety net for Muslims, Mexicans, and all of the groups that have been targeted," she said.