No, 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men aren’t a diverse group


It can be easy for practitioners in any profession to become so technical in defining what they do that they forget what they’re trying to accomplish.

Tech designers sometimes overlook the fact that the gadgets they produce must be user friendly. Defining what we do is essential to conceiving and developing the work, but it doesn’t help if we get so bogged down in definitions that we lose a sense of purpose. The latest example of this is the high-profile, high-powered vice president of diversity and inclusion at Apple, who said during a conference in Bogotá, Colombia this week that “there can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond 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.”

Denise Young Smith was speaking on a panel moderated by the online news outlet Quartz at the One Young World Summit. It was Quartz that first reported her comments. Young Smith said diversity is “the human experience” and that she gets “a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is tagged to the people of color, or the women, or the LGBT.” Quartz reported that her answer “was met with a round of applause.”

In a purely technical sense, Young Smith is correct. Background and perspective are important aspects of diversity and her 12 white, blue-eyed, blonde men in a room could come from different regions of the country, different socio-economic backgrounds, different religious viewpoints and different educational experiences. Beyond that, she seems to go out of her way to ignore the ultimate goal of diversity and to narrow the definition to one so technical that Apple needn’t do any more than it already has. She was supposedly hired to improve the tech giant’s diversity figures and ensure that hiring practices and retention are open and inclusive. But how do you do that if you predetermine that any group of people you bring together is already diverse, which she seems to have done?

Denise Young Smith

The human experience of which Young Smith speaks is going to be different for women, people of color and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities than the group she describes, but she ignores that fact. Twelve white, blue-eyed, blonde men in a room are not a diverse group.

An in-bred sense of tribalism and desire for belonging can make diversity uncomfortable. Having to interact with those different from ourselves challenges our inherent biases and requires us to broaden our personal perspectives just to survive. In the workplace, diverse teams experience higher levels of conflict than homogenous work groups, but studies show they also produce better results when it comes to developing new processes, services and products. Thus, the business case for diversity is based on more than just a rainbow workforce. Its foundation is a need to reach an increasingly diverse population that is not only gaining in economic and political clout but that expects equal access to opportunities in the workplace. Ignoring the need to include underrepresented groups is akin to walking a narrow path wearing blinders.

Young Smith’s ideas undermine the very Idea of workplace diversity. This is especially disheartening given her high profile. It is dispiriting also because her undergraduate degree is from Grambling State University, a historically black university and sister Southwestern Athletic Conference institution to my undergraduate alma mater Jackson State University. She effectively tells companies they can ignore diversity and inclusiveness efforts – which were largely dismantled during the recession anyway – just as they are starting to discuss them again. It’s no wonder that right-wing information site Breitbart latched on to her comments.

Young Smith makes a strong case for her own expendability. If she really believes what she said she should resign because Apple doesn’t need her.

©2017, Robert Naylor Coaching and Consulting, LLC. All rights reserved.

Robert Naylor is a journalist, journalism educator, leadership and diversity consultant, certified coach, facilitator, and speaker who helps people become better leaders, improve workplace performance, and find focus in their careers and life. He is available for on-site training, private coaching, keynote presentations, lectures, and commentary.

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