It can’t be a coincidence that two of tech’s most prominent CEOs — Apple’s Tim Cook and Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel — tackled the industry’s notorious diversity problem ahead of two major industry events.
Before the start of Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in Menlo Park, California Monday, CEO Tim Cook dropped in on a room full of STEM scholarship recipients to tell them the tech community as a whole has failed and is to blame for the industry’s lack of diversity, Mashable reported.
“I think it’s our fault — ‘our’ meaning the whole tech community,” Cook said. “I think in general we haven’t done enough to reach out and show young women that it’s cool to do it and how much fun it can be.”
Apple recently expanded its offerings of the WWDC scholarship program, which gives recipients a free pass to the event and access to Apple employees and a VIP lounge, to include non-traditional students and STEM workers instead of the traditional high school and college student developer applicant requirements.
“[Diversity is] the future of our company,” Cook told Mashable. “I view these people that I talk to today as the future generations of the company, and they will either be a part of it directly or a part of the ecosystem…I think the most diverse group will produce the best product, I firmly believe that.”
Six hours away, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel kicked off the Code Conference in Palos Verdes, California and had a slightly different take on the matter.
When Recode’s Walt Mossberg asked Spiegel in an onstage interview what Snapchat’s staff diversity looked like, he replied:
Diversity, for us, is really closely tied to competency. We have such a diverse group of people using our products and services every day, that in order for us to make absolutely great products and services for that community, we need a really, really diverse group of people. And it’s really that simple. So for us, we just have an awareness that if we want to make the best products, we need to have diverse people…
This is sort of the challenge, and I should have exact percentages for you but we just don’t think about diversity in terms of numbers that way. And I think that one of the perks of being a really small company is, from the beginning, we got to think about diversity, so we didn’t end up with a situation where, 10 years down the line, “Oh my gosh, I need to fix my numbers.” Because it’s not really cool to think of people as numbers. We think about people and diverse skill sets.
Spiegel went on to say matter-of-factly that tech wasn’t alone in its diversity challenge and it “is a challenge everywhere.” But when Mossberg pushed him to expound on what unique barriers to diversity in tech exist, Spiegel refused.
“There are so many things that feed into diversity and inequality that unpacking them on the stage is probably not the best use of time,” he said. “It’s really important work, but no, I think that diversity is a challenge for everyone, we need to say that it’s a challenge for everyone. I don’t think that tech has a special thing that makes it harder, I think it just takes hard work to build a diverse group of people to build great products.”
Beyond age, Cook, 54, and Spiegel, who just turned 25, come from different worlds and perspectives — the latter heads an explosive social platform that rivals incumbents Facebook and Twitter for user loyalty, and the former steers arguably the world’s top tech company in hardware, software and service. And from a distance, it seems that age and legacy could be a major factor with Cook’s statements reflecting ownership of a decades-long phenomenon and Spiegel seemingly taking the stance that diversity happens naturally through osmosis.
Both tech CEOs were right, diversity is the future and not just for tech. But years of lip service, public examples of discrimination, and mystery surrounding companies’ actual employee makeup have given rise to urgency to fix a homogeneous ecosystem delivering products and services to the globe.
Apple has been committed to diversity efforts, funneling money into program development and releasing a company diversity report that, like others in the industry, showed its employees were a majority white and male.
Spiegel and his company’s youth keep it from having to do massive outreach to balance the scales and diversity can happen more naturally. But that seemingly meritocratic approach is part of the reason why tech — and other industries across the board — struggle to attract women and people of color and promote them through the ranks.
Women in particular are are only beginning to become visible faces of tech businesses. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was named the most powerful woman in tech for the fourth consecutive year, but Amazon only recently hired its first woman to an executive position.