Apple’s Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, Denise Young Smith, is leaving the company at the end of the year, Bloomberg reports. Earlier this month, Cornell Tech announced Young Smith would be joining the faculty as an executive-in-residence in January.
Young Smith is an Apple veteran who has been with the company since 1997, most recently serving as human resources chief before taking her diversity position in May. In October, she faced backlash for ill-advised comments on diversity at a panel alongside prominent activists DeRay Mckesson and Michael Hastings. Her comments, as transcribed by Techcrunch:
I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is tagged to the people of colour 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.
Of course, this is the type of banal universalism that Silicon Valley thrives on. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended the inclusion of Peter Thiel, a self-described libertarian and Trump supporter, on the company’s (entirely white, majority male) board last year, he argued Thiel’s support of Trump was in line with the company’s commitment to diversity. Similarly, James Damore, whose Google memo had seismic impacts on the diversity conversation, has repeatedly said he and other likeminded white men are marginalised by Silicon Valley because of their beliefs, arguing he was fired for railing against an “ideological echo chamber“.
It’s all so insipid. Ideological diversity is crucial, but positioning it against traditional definitions of diversity – as though hiring women and minorities means building an ideological monolith – is insulting and absurd. Young Smith’s comments seemed especially tone-deaf given that Apple’s diversity numbers are so pitifully unremarkable: The company’s annual report shows 83 per cent of tech employees are white or Asian, with everyone else making up the other 17 per cent.
Young Smith apologised shortly afterward, saying, “Apple’s view and our dedication to diversity has not changed.” It’s unfortunate her lengthy career at the company will be largely defined by an offhand comment (especially since it’s no different from what’s probably said in boardrooms everywhere). In time, her legacy may include her work laying the foundation for Apple’s diversity scholarship funds. Maybe future recipients can make the sorts of long-lasting changes to the company that embody broader definitions of “diversity” than what’s scribbled on those yearly reports.