Why Apple’s Head of Diversity Had to Apologize for Being Right
Recently, during the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Denise Young Smith, Apple’s head of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) made a statement that was quickly labeled as controversial not only by diversity and inclusion critics and detractors, but also by experts and advocates. “There can be 12 white, blue-eyed blond men in a room,” she said during a panel discussion, “and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.”
Young Smith was making a statement of fact, and she was right. Yet the blowback and condemnation was so fierce that, within a few days, she felt compelled to issue a formal letter of apology for her choice of words and to re-emphasize Apple’s commitment to increasing representation by women and minorities in its workforce.
Why was she right? Because the opposite implication – that 12 blonde, blue-eyed men in a room would all have the same life experiences and the same perspectives – is absurd on its face. But, we have become too politically correct about being politically correct. It is no longer possible for D&I experts like Young Smith to emphasize the importance of valuing diverse experiences, thoughts and perspectives without facing the collective wrath of the protected classes, i.e. women, people of color, the disabled and the LGBTQ community. (Full disclosure, I am a straight, white, blue-eyed, blond male who has been working in the D&I space for over two decades.)
And yet, the anger, frustration, and resentment of women and minorities, who have barely gained a toehold into the powerful world of big tech, is entirely understandable. The results of decades of effort aren’t good. For example, Apple’s overall numbers – 32% women, 9% black, 12% Hispanic, 19% Asian and 56% white in 2016 – are unimpressive, and they are considered a tech industry leader. In fact, there is no question that growth in representation of traditionally under-represented groups – especially in leadership and board positions – is maddeningly slow in all industries, not just technology.
Still, the contention that when minority representation is significantly improved then the practice of valuing diversity of thought, experience and perspective will naturally follow, simply doesn’t hold water. We cannot assume that two upper-middle class Stanford engineering school graduates, who happen to be of different races, will automatically bring significantly different life experiences and perspectives to their Apple work group. Sadly, there are also indicators that when white, male leaders do see measurable upticks in the percentage of women and minorities in their workforces, they tend to congratulate themselves and move on to what they would call other “flavors of the month” while still unconsciously operating within the same amount of innovation-stifling “group think” that they’ve had all along.
Our organizations have become so focused on the numbers and on avoiding the negative headlines around the lack of representation by women and minorities, that we seem to have forgotten that our workplaces also need healthy, spirited debates among people who think differently, who see their work with different eyes, who are willing to go much deeper than race and gender differences and actively listen to and consider others’ unique perspectives. There was a time when this was an equally important a goal as increasing race and gender diversity. But, given the increasingly regressive social and political attitudes and behaviors America is currently experiencing, some D&I experts seem to have retrenched, and we may be at risk of being held hostage by our own lowered expectations.
It appears that championing diversity of thought, experience and perspective is now a risky pursuit in the D&I world where many are convinced that if we don’t keep our eyes on the prize of increased representation, then our organizations will keep taking one step forward and two steps back. Again, this is an entirely understandable fear, especially given the reality that ground has been lost (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of women in the American workforce peaked at 60% in 1999). Still, it shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, it must be both.
Yes, Young Smith was right about those 12 blonde, blue-eyed men, and perhaps she was also right to apologize for her choice of words. But, if we keep focused on increasing representation by women, people of color, the disabled and the LGBTQ community as the most important goal, then we risk being labeled as just as stubborn and closed-minded as the straight, white, male corporate leadership we so often pillory. The practice of valuing others for their diversity of experience, thought and perspective is equally as important as numerical representation of women and minorities, and we shouldn’t have to apologize for that.