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Apple Just Tried to Address Its Gender Problem in the Worst Way Possible

·National Correspondent, Technology

(Via Reuters)

Did female Apple employees work to make the Apple Watch a possibility? 

Yes, obviously. Apple employs many women, including Senior Vice President Angela Ahrendts, who quit her job as CEO of Burberry to revamp Apple’s in-person and online retail experience in anticipation of this new luxurious wearable. By many accounts, Ahrendts has been instrumental in steering Apple’s watch strategy for the past two years. 

The casual viewer, however, would never know that Ahrendts, or any other woman, really, was part of the Apple Watch development process or launch. Because at its event on Monday, the company invited supermodel Christy Turlington on stage to talk about the project instead of any one of the women who were actually involved in its creation.

This wouldn’t be so bad if Apple’s track record with hiring, promoting, and showcasing its female employees were better. Lots of companies employ hot, famous people to sling their products to the masses, even if they have nothing to do with the creation of said product. 

But considering Apple’s storied history of live presentations, the fact that the company opted for a live appearance from Turlington, who took the stage instead of a smart lady executive who actually helped make the watch a reality, is a clear missed opportunity for the company to support a movement that so badly needs the public support of a corporate giant like Apple. 

The numbers

When it comes to hiring a balanced number of men versus women, Apple, like many of its peers in the tech industry, comes up short. Last year, as activists placed public pressure on tech companies to make their workforces more diverse, the company released statistics about the race and gender makeup of its workforce. A mere 30 percent of its 98,000 global employees are women. And the numbers get worse when you look at specific sectors. Only 28 percent of the company’s corporate leadership is female. And, disappointingly, women only make up 20 percent of its core tech sector.


Apple CEO Tim Cook admits that the company needs to do better. “I’m not satisfied with the numbers on this page,” he wrote in a letter that was released alongside the diversity report. “They’re not new to us, and we’ve been working hard for quite some time to improve them. We are making progress, and we’re committed to being as innovative in advancing diversity as we are in developing our products.” 

Since then, Apple has been working to change the makeup of its workforce, and how it’s perceived by women. Apple sent recruiters to a Women in Computing conference in Arizona. It continues to sponsor the National Center for Women and Information Technology. The company even announced it would cover the cost of freezing its female employees’ eggs. But at its public media events, Apple’s efforts have been uncomfortably nonexistent.

As the developer Joe Kukura found after watching 16 hours of past Worldwide Developers Conference event footage, Apple has shown only two live women on stage out of its 59 featured speakers since 2007. Neither were given major roles in the event. And neither were high-level executives. (As I mentioned, Apple doesn’t have many of those in the first place). Journalist Selena Larson confirmed this female scarcity with her own research, noting that “women or minorities have appeared a handful of times in photos while white male executives demonstrate the capabilities of the smartphone’s camera or editing software. They just weren’t on stage themselves.” 


At the same time, the company has given many of its male employees, whether they’re longtime executives or newer hires, an astounding amount of stage time. The company has rotated between a familiar crew. Cook at the helm, along with Eddie Cue, Phil Schiller, Craig Federighi, and Jony Ive (via his signature minimalist infomercials). They’ve dedicated time and resources to create weird videos about privacy, and they interact with each other onstage to make it seem like they’re all best buds. We’ve seen them so often that certain executives have spawned tiny fan bases. Federighi, for instance, is known for his big hair. Ive groupies are fond of his simple gray shirts. This isn’t a seniority thing, either. More recently, newcomers, like the indisputably monotone Kevin Lynch, have appeared on stage as well.

The wrong message

These same events have included celebrities, too. Just in the past year, we’ve seen Bono, Stephen Colbert, Justin Timberlake, and Jimmy Fallon on the Apple stage. But those celebrities have never replaced the core stage time of male Apple employees, as Turlington seemed to when she stepped out onstage wearing an Apple Watch, and Angela Ahrendts did not. 

There’s no real excuse. Though most tech companies suffer imbalanced gender statistics in their workforces, several have made concerted and public efforts to include female employees in their public announcements. As my colleague Jason Gilbert noted last week, Samsung’s presentation at this year’s Mobile World Congress included major roles for executive Younghee Lee and Vice President Hyun Yeul Lee. Both Microsoft and Google’s recent press events included female employees as well. As aggressive as Apple is when it comes to pushing new technology and tackling new markets, it has been equally slow when it comes to publicly addressing this issue. 

This isn’t to say that Turlington hasn’t accomplished an enormous amount in her career as a model and as a philanthropist. She’s an excellent role model of an independent, ambitious woman and can’t be blamed for accepting a role as a spokesperson for this high profile project. And it’s admirable that Apple was willing to promote her foundation, Every Mother Counts, alongside its latest product. 

But Apple’s decision to feature her, over an actual female employee, is particularly tone deaf when you consider the issues of sexism plaguing the tech industry. Women in tech often encounter male co-workers who see them as potential mates rather than equal peers. This issue is often the exact reason why it so difficult for a woman to work or succeed in the tech industry

The millions of women and girls who watched Apple’s event on Monday didn’t see a powerful woman sharing the stage with her co-workers. They saw a celebrity who is best known for being a supermodel. And whether Apple executives realize it or not, this kind of visual messaging has an effect on how future female generations imagine themselves. The more lady role models we can place in the spotlight, the likelier it’ll be that women will feel comfortable studying science or technology, and angling to break into those fields. Apple needs to acknowledge that, no matter the diversity in its advertisements or spokesmodels, or it won’t be able to inspire future generations of female programmers, engineers, and leaders unless it places its own lady employees right smack dab on stage next to Cook. 

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her.