Usually, Apple’s events are heavily white and male.
This year, more women and people of colour took the stage, limiting the tally of white men. But the more diverse lineup drew mixed reactions on social media. Some praised the company for its efforts. Others flagged the glaring absence of black presenters onstage.
“Is this the most diverse Apple keynote ever?,” tweeted Rakesh Agrawal, a product and marketing strategist. “A lot of women and minorities. (Though, sadly, no African Americans speaking – some in the ads.)”
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
Tech giants have long been criticised for a lack of diversity in their workforces, particularly when it comes to leadership positions. A tech industry that is homogeneous is dangerous, critics warn, in part because engineers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are developing everything from AI assistants to robots. They say a lack of diversity could contribute to problems as new technology plays an ever-growing role in our lives.
In March, former Facebook manager Mark Luckie told Congress that Silicon Valley’s diversity problem is so severe that discrimination is often built into tech products. Among the examples he cited: an Amazon algorithm that preferred male candidates to female candidates for technical roles and a Google app that automatically labelled images of African Americans as gorillas. (Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
Last year, members of the Congressional Black Caucus visited Apple and other large tech companies to discuss why the sector has been slow to diversify its executive ranks, invest in minority-owned start-ups and assist workers who can’t find jobs or afford to live in Silicon Valley. At the time, black employees made up about 9 percent of Apple’s workforce, while white employees represented 54 percent.
Though more recent data shows that Apple has gained ground with other minority groups and new hires, the percentage of black employees overall remains at 9 percent. Only 3 percent of high-ranking positions at the company are held by black people.
As a result of years of criticism, many tech companies – including Apple – have stepped up their recruiting efforts and published inclusion reports.
“Things I’ve noticed about #AppleEvent that are rubbing me the wrong way: A ton of upper management white men introducing minorities who do the actual work,” wrote Olivia Moore, a Chicago-based design consultant. “Another year and so far, not a single black person actually on the stage speaking.
Still, she added, “Diversity matters. They’re learning.”
In a brighter sign for diversity, multiple women took the stage as presenters at Tuesday’s event, including Sumbul Desai, Apple’s vice president of health, and Kaiann Drance, senior director of product management and marketing for the iPhone.
In 2015, Apple Vice President Jennifer Bailey gained notoriety for being the first woman to take the stage at an Apple event in recent memory. Before that, Gizmodo said, it could find only six instances of women appearing onstage at main events during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference and product launches, only one of them a company executive.
Some Apple supporters pointed out that the company brought African American icon Oprah Winfrey to the stage for its Apple TV+ announcement earlier this year and that Apple CEO Tim Cook brought his own diversity to Tuesday’s event as a member of the LGBTQ community. (Cook is openly gay.)
The conversation about diversity has even extended to emoji, with cultural experts arguing that representation by emoji validates identity and are used throughout the world across language barriers. In July, Apple and Google revealed their designs of new emoji, including depictions of a service dog, wheelchairs and hearing aids. The companies also introduced new versions of people holding hands, with Apple adding 75 new combinations based on skin tone and gender.
Apple introduced emoji skin colour options beyond its standard light-skinned depiction in 2015. Many users applauded the update, while others felt the changes were poorly executed.