Apple diversity head Denise Young Smith apologizes for controversial choice of words at summit

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Apple’s Denise Young Smith sent an apology to team members at Apple today over comments she made at the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia.

Last week, while attending a summit in Bogota, I made some comments as part of a conversation on the many factors that contribute to diversity and inclusion….I regret the choice of words I used to make this point,” said Smith in the memo.

As the company’s Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity, Smith has been the tip of Apple’s D&I spear during an era of increasing pressure on big tech companies to improve their inclusiveness. Smith came under fire from diversity advocates and commentators over a specific statement she made during a panel she was on alongside activist DeRay Mckesson and Michael Hastings, which was moderated by Aamna Mohdin of Quartz.

TechCrunch obtained Smith’s email to her team, which reads as follows:

Colleagues,

I have always been proud to work for Apple in large part because of our steadfast commitment to creating an inclusive culture. We are also committed to having the most diverse workforce and our work in this area has never been more important. In fact, I have dedicated my twenty years at Apple to fostering and promoting opportunity and access for women, people of color and the underserved and unheard. 

Last week, while attending a summit in Bogota, I made some comments as part of a conversation on the many factors that contribute to diversity and inclusion. 

I regret the choice of words I used to make this point. I understand why some people took offense. My comments were not representative of how I think about diversity or how Apple sees it. For that, I’m sorry. 

More importantly, I want to assure you Apple’s view and our dedication to diversity has not changed.  

Understanding that diversity includes women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and all underrepresented minorities is at the heart of our work to create an environment that is inclusive of everyone. 

Our commitment at Apple to increasing racial and gender diversity is as strong as it’s ever been. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, but there is much work to be done. I’m continually reminded of the importance of talking about these issues and learning from each other. 

Best,

Denise

The focus of the blowback was a segment of Smith’s panel that came as a follow on discussion related to an earlier question about whether black women were a priority for her in her role. Because a lot of the resulting discussion on the web has been based on snippets of the conversation, I’ll present a chunk of the dialog here, to give more context. I’ll bold the bit that seems to have caused the most controversy.

Aamna Mohdin: I wanted to touch on something that you said, Denise, that it’s not only just about numbers in Silicon Valley, but you’ve taken on a new role in Apple for inclusion and diversity, and a lot of that is going to be about the numbers. And I just kind of wanted to know whether black women is a priority for you in this new role? 

Denise Young Smith: I’ll say this. So first of all, it’s a new role, but it’s not. I’ve been black and a woman for a long time…I have been doing this work, I have been playing this role for a very long time. I have been a first, I’ve been an only, when I was at the same conference that I just referenced, there were numbers and numbers of black women together — successful, professional, astonishing black women, and we were sharing stories and every single one of us could share the same stories about being in a room, in a meeting and someone would assume you were the assistant, the secretary, that you were not the manager, you were not the boss and that your staff person that was three levels below you was your boss. We all shared those stories.

Denise Young Smith: Aamna, you also asked me about my work at Apple, or in particular, who do I focus on? I focus on everyone. Diversity is the human experience. I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is tagged to the people of color or the women or the LGBT or whatever because that means they’re carrying that around…because that means that we are carrying that around on our foreheads.

And I’ve often told people a story– there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation. The issue is representation and mix and bringing all the voices into the room that can contribute to the outcome of any situation. So I focus on everyone, but I also focus on allies and alliances because to DeRay’s point, there’s an incredible amount of power in those who have platforms or those who have the benefit of greater representation to tell the stories of those who do not. So whenever we can accomplish that, then that is a win for everyone. And I think that is something that people, that we all tend to… particularly those who protest things that we are fearful about, we can all win in this story, and so that’s what I try to focus on at Apple.

The phrasing is very poor. On the face of it the meaning is that there really is no need to look beyond any sort of seeming homogeneity within Silicon Valley’s tech workforce (which is mostly white and overwhelmingly male). Instead, the phrase appears to allow for Apple to make diversity and inclusion hiring decisions based solely on diversity of thought. There’s nothing inherently wrong with diverse thinking, but treating it with primary importance eliminates the many benefits of a racial-and-gender-diverse workforce and many see it as, frankly, a complete cop-out in trying to solve a very real problem. 

“Diversity of thought” has long been a lever used by critics of the concept of D&I work to push back against meaningful diversity efforts. Already this week, some critics of the concept of inclusive diversity work (racists, men who believe they are inherently superior, etc) were pointing at Smith’s comments with an air of smugness — likely not her intended effect.

The thrust of Smith’s email is that she realizes the mistake in using this example, and just how damaging it could be to the perception of Apple’s D&I work. Apple’s overall numbers – 9% black, 12% Hispanic, 19% Asian and 56% white, are still poor. The picture gets slightly dimmer yet when you consider that the majority of those non-white employees are in Apple’s retail workforce, and are not employed in technical or leadership positions. Even so, Apple is among the top performers in tech overall — which shows you how rough the situation still is — and is gaining slowly.

Smith has been at Apple a long time, and was promoted first by Steve Jobs to a position leading Retail HR and then again by CEO Tim Cook earlier this year to be the company’s first VP of Diversity and Inclusion. Smith also pioneered Apple’s partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College fund, which supports students enrolled in HBCUs with $40M in funding to foster and hire students coming from these colleges.

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