Apple execs need to lead by example on diversity

It may have rolled out numerous initiatives to help improve representation but the tech giant is slow to shake up its top team.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 31 Mar 2016

Apple has a lot on its plate at the moment, we’d all agree on that. It’s currently fighting one of its biggest battles to date against the FBI. So it might be fair to cut it a little slack when pushing other concerns to one side for the time being.

But its recent rejection of a diversity proposal shouldn't fly under the radar. At its shareholder meeting on Friday, Apple voted down a request for the company to adopt an ‘accelerated recruitment policy’ for minorities among company leaders.

Apple recommended its shareholders vote against the proposal, saying the measure was ‘unduly burdensome and not necessary’. The request duly got shareholders’ backs up as a perceived attempt to micromanage recruitment. 

There are 18 named execs on the company's website; 15 are white men. Three are women, two of whom are black. ‘Not necessary’ seems a bit of a stretch, ‘unduly burdensome’ a poor choice of words for a hefty problem Silicon Valley has been grappling with for a while now.

Apple's executive directors:

Tony Maldonado, an individual investor with just 645 shares put the proposal forward, after his teenage son asked him why the company’s board was almost all white. He thought it was ‘fantastic’ the request managed to garner over 5% (it got 5.1%). That might seem like a case of low expectations, but the fact the proposal was put forward in the first place reflects wider concern over representation and increased pressure for companies to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Apple is undertaking measures to improve the representation of its workforce – partnering with various organisations to broaden its talent pipeline, providing scholarships for black students attending historically black colleges and providing tech to underserved schools in the US. But claiming the company's current activities relating to diversity and inclusion already meet the proposal (as shareholder the California Public Employees’ Retirement System did), doesn't hold true when you consider the make-up of the board.

This isn’t as rigid a proposal as something like an enforced quota either, so concerns about tokenism in this sort of situation seem misplaced. Improving opportunity and routes to the top for a wider range of people doesn’t mean the quality will be diluted. Far from it. Various studies have found that firms with diverse boards typically see higher financial returns.

Tim Cook acknowledged there was ‘much more work to do on diversity across the company’ and that Apple was ‘working very hard on it’. More immediate action to create a board which reflects all the people its company claims to serve would go a lot further to demonstrate that.

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