Apple's first Vice President of Diversity, Denise Young Smith, had been with Apple for 20 years before receiving this promotion six months ago. And now, she's out of a job, replaced by former Deloitte Managing Principal Christie Smith. Reportedly, she had already decided to leave, but a single statement made in a public forum had also sparked enough social media rage.
And any sort of public speaking or marketing without close attention to how your words could be taken, in context or out, can be a fast path to danger.
Young Smith had spoken in Bogotá, Colombia on a panel about fighting racial injustice. Here are the words that stirred collective anger:
When asked whether she would be focusing on any group of people, such as black women, in her efforts to create a more inclusive and diverse Apple, Young Smith says, "I focus on everyone." She added: "Diversity is the human experience. I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is tagged to the people of color, or the women, or the LGBT." Her answer was met with a round of applause at the session.
There can be 12 white, blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they're going to be diverse too.
Broad applause ended at the walls of the room, if Twitter was any example.
Surely Denise Smith Young doesn't believe a room of blonde hair, blue-eyed white men is diverse? https://t.co/FUnrEUq1BV-- carfan4ever (@carfan4ever) October 14, 2017
Some reactions were supportive.
Apple's diversity VP forced to apologize for saying something truthful. https://t.co/RGSL0VVkM6-- Christina Sommers (@CHSommers) October 15, 2017
Not long after the online blowup, Young Smith apologized for "the choice of words I used to make this point."
Young Smith was right, in that the choice of wording was abysmal. When subjects are sensitive, as diversity is, you must carefully choose your words. Young Smith was in the worst possible position, because she was responding to an audience question. There was no time to run phrasing past lawyers and communications experts who could discuss how someone could take the wording.
And, yes, diversity has to be more than a set of checkboxes. If you're running a company, you need wide experience. Among other things, that includes geographical and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as race, gender, gender identity, and ethnic origin.
But, that doesn't matter. This is the nature of the world, particularly when people are angry and demanding redress for old and continuing systemic injuries. Whatever part of society you point to, there will be those ready to take vocal offense, whether or not they take time to think through their reactions. Ironically, whites today represent only 58 percent of Apple's workforce, a number significantly lower than the 70 percent non-Hispanic and non-Latino whites represent in the U.S. population. That would seem like some advance, particularly at Apple, which, like much of tech, has received heavy criticism over lack of diversity, although women and some minorities still have low representation.
If you say something that can be taken as a dismissal of social and corporate interests, like common understandings of diversity, you'll get taken to task by many. It may not seem fair if you're on the receiving end, but you ultimately control what sounds come out of your mouth. Think over what you're about to say and consider how to ensure they are seen in a larger context, especially if you're about to speak about a pet peeve.
If Young Smith had said something like, "I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is seen as a matter of color or gender or gender identity alone," and then followed with, "A seemingly diverse room isn't diverse enough if everyone comes from the same part of the country and same economic background," she likely would have been fine.
You need certain skills to talk with relative safety. If you're going to speak at conferences or otherwise represent a company, or yourself, publicly, you need to learn how to monitor your word choice, think quickly on your feet, and prepare for any event.