Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Denise Young Smith at the One Young World Summit

Aamna Mohdin, Quartz:

Apple, like many other tech titans such as Google, and Microsoft, is trying to take key steps in addressing the problem of having a lack of diversity, which has been highlighted by investors. But it does look like the company is making progress. Apple’s latest statistics show that a majority of new hires in the US are from ethnic minorities, although white employees still account for 56% of the overall current workforce.

When asked whether she would be focusing on any group of people, such as black women, in her efforts to create a more inclusive and diverse Apple, [VP of Diversity Denise Young Smith] says, “I focus on everyone.” She added: “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.” Her answer was met with a round of applause at the session.

Young Smith went on to add that “there can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blonde men in a room and they’re going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.” The issue, Young Smith explains, “is representation and mix.” She is keen to work to bring all voices into the room that “can contribute to the outcome of any situation.”

I get where Young Smith is coming from here — that diversity is more than a single-item checkbox question. Nobody should feel like the token person on a team, only there to meet a diversity quota; everyone should feel valued. I recently attended a discussion panel concerning equity in the arts in Calgary, and a similar point was made there as well.

But it is unfair and disingenuous to make this argument without also acknowledging that the tech industry is dominated by individuals within a very narrow spectrum of diversity — typically white, typically male, and typically wealthy or from wealthier backgrounds. This tendency is more pronounced the higher up one looks at a company’s corporate ladder. Of course, these stereotypes are not fully representative — and, even if they are, those individuals may have different life experiences; that’s what Young Smith is getting at — but it’s hard to see the framing of twelve white men as a “diverse” group as anything other than a cop-out after Apple’s investors once again voted against a diversity proposal earlier this year.

Omar Ismail on Quora, responding to a user’s question about whether they’re privileged simply because they are white:

It doesn’t mean you’re rich. It doesn’t mean you’re luckier than a lucky black guy. Nobody wants you to be crippled with guilt. Nobody has ever wanted that, or means those things.

It means you have an advantage, and all anyone is asking is that you *get* that. Once you get that, it’s pretty straightforward to all the further implications.

DeRay Mckesson made a similar point in response to Young Smith’s answer at the summit:

You didn’t work hard for every band aid to look like you, for every baby doll to look like you, for the world to treat you as human, and everything as ‘other’ is not the result of your personal hard work — that’s what white privilege is.

Tech companies have a massive responsibility. They may overwhelmingly be based in the United States, but they play a significant role in how the world communicates. Right now, their senior leadership does not look like the world in which they reside. When that changes, we can start really looking at the life experience of twelve white men and how that substantially contributes to the company’s diversity objectives — however, bigger steps are needed before we can get to that point. I think we need to reconsider how people are educated, hired, and promoted. But, as I wrote near the top of this piece, nobody should feel like they’re a “token” person in a team; that can start with companies pursuing truly comprehensive opportunities to make their staff at all levels more like the world they connect.

Update: I worry that companies more lax in their diversity efforts will use this kind of defence as an excuse for hiring just 36 black Americans in a whole year.