As the representation of Blacks, Latinos and women in Silicon Valley continues to move at a snail's pace, Denise Young Smith, Apple's vice president of inclusion and diversity, offered that "12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room" equates to diversity.
Representing the tech giant, whose leadership has historically been predominantly white and male, Smith — formally Apple's head of HR and ultimately responsible for the company's hiring — participated in the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia last week. Despite data showing that diversity — whether racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation or disabilities — is critical for a company's performance, she said diversity of thought might be enough.
During a panel discussion Aamna Mohdin of Quartz asked Smith if she would be focusing on groups of people, such as Black women, in attempts to make Apple more inclusive.
"I focus on everyone," Smith responded. "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 blond 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."
Smith has worked at Apple for 20 years and was just promoted to her D&I position in May. After hearing her comments, panelist DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter activist, said that "white privilege" must be acknowledged when discussing diversity and representation, according to Quartz.
Twelve blue-eyed blond men in a room at Apple may be the norm. According to the company's 2016 diversity report, its non-white workforce only grew by a percentage point compared to 2015. However, white employees in the U.S. increased by 2 percent to 56 percent. Black employees went from 8 to 9 percent, Latinos from 11 to 12 percent and Asians from 18 to 19 percent.
The percentage of Black managers based in the U.S. remained at 3 percent; the number of Latino managers in the U.S. increased slightly to 7 percent, up from 6 percent in 2015; and women managers at Apple remained at 28 percent globally.
In contrast, companies on the DiversityInc Top 10 list reported more than 31 percent of their total management included Blacks, Latinos and Asians, and 47 percent of their total management being women.
After the intense backlash from diversity advocates, Smith emailed a letter of apology to her team at Apple.
"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," Smith said in a memo obtained by TechCrunch.
Apple Investor Seeks Diversity
On Feb. 7, USA Today published an op-ed by Apple investor Tony Maldonado titled, "My Hispanic son: Why is Apple so white at the top?"
"The unfortunate fact is that only 7 percent of Apple's leadership is Hispanic and 3 percent Black," Maldonado wrote.
"Only five out of Apple's top 107 executives are Black, Hispanic, Native American or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
"The company's eight-member board includes one Black man and two women (one of whom is Asian)."
Maldonado submitted a proposal at the Feb. 28 Apple shareholders meeting to increase diversity within management and on the board, calling the lack of diversity a "business risk."
His proposal was rejected, receiving 4.91 percent of the votes this year, compared to the 5.1 percent of the votes the proposal received last year.
"Apple argued that its efforts to increase diversity are 'much broader' than the 'accelerated recruitment policy' that the proposal puts forth," according to The Street. "Instead of focusing on Apple's senior management and board, the company takes a more 'holistic' view extending to anyone who wants to work in the tech sector in the future."
Investors, such as Maldonado, have been the ones pushing the needle toward diversity and inclusion on boards, according to PwC's (No. 4 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list) 2016 annual corporate survey.
The survey also highlighted the fact that having more women on boards means greater financial performance for a company.
"Research has shown that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of female directors attained significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest representation of female directors," the report states.
S&P 500 companies have approximately 19.9 percent of women serving on their boards, while women represent 31.4 percent of the boards of DiversityInc's 2017 Top 10 companies.