'No Agency, Unpredictability': What Tech Layoffs Mean For Indian Women In US

Mass layoffs along with the unpredictability of H1-B Visas, are disproportionately impacting Indian American women.

6 min read
'No Agency, Unpredictability': What Tech Layoffs Mean For Indian Women In  US

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“We always knew H-1B is a risky visa,” Priya, who was 'disheartened' but 'not surprised' when the company she worked for laid her off suddenly, tells The Quint.

Priya (name changed) has been on H1-B visa since 2012, after completing her MBA in the United States.

Even though her ‘job felt stable’ as she had been with her US employer for many years, she and her husband always knew that they needed a back-up plan.

“It impacts not only me but also my husband. He is a huge support, but I am the primary visa holder."
Priya to The Quint

The H-1B visa allows foreign, high-skilled workers to live and work in the US for a maximum of six years but must leave the country within 60 days if they are unemployed.

This has adversely impacted a vast number of Indian American women in the United States, who are among H1-B visa holders, with continuing mass layoffs by American companies facing economic headwinds.

How H-1B 'Unpredictability' Impacted Entire Families

Women on H-1B visas face unique challenges as they carry the weight of not only their careers but also their husbands’, and struggle to balance their professional ambitions, marriages and expanding family responsibilities.

To cushion them from ‘H-1B unpredictability’ and ‘not jeopardise her husband’s career’, Priya and her family moved from Chicago to Washington state, close to the US-Canada border, in 2021.

They decided to maintain two homes – one in the US and the other just four minutes’ drive away in Canada. Her husband had ‘fortunately’ managed to get a Canadian residency permit.

Their US permanent residency application is approved but the family is ‘many years down’ in the infamous green card backlog. This fallback border arrangement would come in handy in a dreaded scenario – if they are forced to move out of USA due to her job loss, they will not feel completely uprooted.

“Ideally, I do want to work in US. I want my son to live and grow up in US where he was born. But we decided that if I ever lose my job, we should live in Canada, which has been so nice to us. I don’t want to be in stress of packing and moving some where far away in 60 days,” Priya says.

The couple is ready for ‘family-friendly’ Canada.


Is Coming Back To India An Option?

Tech layoffs meant losing 30 percent of her colleagues and a complete restructuring of her team for Stuti Mohan, who is a strategy and operations professional at Meta.

She has been in the US for five years, first as a student and now on an H-1B visa. The tech layoffs make the young single woman's parents anxious:

“With all the news around layoffs at Meta, me being here (San Francisco Bay Area), my parents in India have been pretty anxious”.

The pressure to get married is always around even though her parents ‘are supportive and in terms of financial independence and stability they trust’ her.

With the threat of further layoffs always looming, the ‘optimist’ understands that ‘layoffs will not be uncommon’ and ‘does not mind’ working in India if a situation arises. But she is in a minority.

For Priya, who did ‘not feel safe growing up’ in India, returning to India is not an option of choice, “My biggest challenge growing up in India as a woman was hard.

 Delhi is not a place I would want to go for reasons of pure safety or raise a daughter there if I had one. I have family in India, and I don’t mean to offend others who choose to live there, but I don’t see a change. Walking on the road and catcalling- that hasn’t happened to me in the US in 12 years!”


And, What Of Women Trying To Juggle Careers & Motherhood?

It is well established that child-bearing and rearing come at a higher professional cost to women. Losses are even more striking when layoffs hit during the most vulnerable stages of motherhood.

Namita (name changed) a young mother was on family leave when she found out that she had been laid off by Twitter where she had worked for two years. She says:

“I had 20 weeks of maternity leave, and I was laid off in the 18th week. I never thought I could be laid off during my maternity, that too in the US. This added pots of stress and lead to less productive in lactation as well. Strange thing is that I wasn’t even paid for the left-over leave period.”

Planning to focus on taking care of her newborn, she was unprepared for juggling recruitment meetings and interview calls with motherhood.

Namita had come to the US on a dependent visa after her marriage and invested in an MBA to be able to break into the job market. Disappointed by the unreliability of family leave at Twitter, she says:

“My job was more stable as my husband was new to his current job and was often travelling out of state. I worked very hard to get into Twitter. Strange thing is that it can happen to women on family leave. But this is not the first time I have faced discrimination in the tech world.”

Fortunately for Namita, she has crossed a significant milestone in her American Dream – she is now an American citizen, no longer dependent on an H-1B visa for her job hunt or stay in the country.

An American permanent residency opens numerous opportunities for immigrant families that an American life offers, which Indians are denied for years, some likely for their lifetimes, because the green card queue is the longest for them – running into decades in some categories.

Discrimination is an oft repeated word in Indian American H-1B families when referring to their visa. Since 2014 spouses of H-1B holder workers, the H-4 dependent visa holders with an approved green card petition, are permitted employment in the USA, but the authorisation expires as soon as their H-4 visas expire, every three years.

The renewal process creates job losses and breaks in employment, making it difficult to build a career.  The law is structured such that the H-4 EAD holder loses their job as soon as the H-1B visa holder loses theirs.


Sense Of Shame, Lack Of Agency: The Emotional Cost

Over 93 percent of current H-4EAD (H4 Employment Authorisation Document) holders are South Asian women. Careers in science, technology, and health care are popular among desi H4-EADs holding advance degrees and work experience. 

The lack of agency and not having a legal identity outside of one's husband is stifling for these highly educated spouses of H-1Bs.  Chosen to ‘support their husbands and build families’ by giving up ‘their own highly paying jobs back home’ to come to US, these women find tech layoffs have exacerbated the ‘sense of shame’ they feel.

Sociologist Dr Pallavi Banerjee of University of Calgary, author of ‘The Opportunity Trap: High-Skilled Workers, Indian Families, and the Failures of the Dependent Visa Program’ says that its often the women’s ‘role to keep in touch with families and friends back home’.

She explains, “It falls on them to reveal the family’s job loss. Shame of an H-4 is double down because there is shame associated with being a dependent, and now their partners have lost their jobs. The hope that they will make up for their lost careers with time, that hope is lost.”

Research has shown that women employees of colour tend to earn lower and be less represented in senior ranks of the corporate world. The recent spate of layoffs in the tech industry has hit women harder. Women of color and women with children and more vulnerable to layoffs.

The American tech industry which has long grappled to hire diverse labour power, now faces the daunting ‘diversity, equity & inclusion’ challenge of maintaining their commitments to increase women and other minorities in their workforce. Highly educated Indian American women on H-1B and H-4 EADs are eager to be that woman-power to contribute to the American economy and their American dream. 

(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)

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Topics:  Womens Day   tech layoffs 

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