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Apple says it has investigated recent allegations of sexism on campus and ‘actions have been taken’

Apple’s HR chief says even companies that value diversity face challenges in a male-dominated field.

Apple HR executive Denise Young Smith, speaking with Recode's Ina Fried
Apple HR chief Denise Young Smith sits with Recode’s Ina Fried.

While Apple was expecting to make news this week, it had hoped it would be for the launch of the iPhone 7 rather than on shortcomings in its corporate culture.

But mixed in with the reviews of the new iPhone were reports from Mic and Gizmodo highlighting several negative experiences from women working at Apple, including one woman upset with the company’s response to what she perceived as a “rape joke” made by her male co-workers.

So, on the same day that it launched the new phone, Apple HR chief Denise Young Smith spent an hour with Recode responding to the issues raised in the articles as well as discussing the significant diversity challenges faced by Apple and other Silicon Valley companies.

“We take these things not just seriously, but personally,” said Young Smith in an interview in the atrium of 1 Infinite Loop. “I have been grieved over this ... that someone may have had this kind of an experience.”

Grieved or not, the posts on gender issues highlighted problems that have persisted in tech, which has outsized numbers of white men in positions of power and weak records of diversity.

The emails cited by Mic include a female engineer recounting being told to smile by her male boss, other women saying they were passed over for promotion in favor of less-qualified men, as well as the story of Danielle (a pseudonym), an engineer who said she complained to Apple CEO Tim Cook after co-workers started discussing Bed Intruder Song, a popular internet meme that set to music a TV interview with a man describing the attempted sexual assault of his sister.

Young Smith, who has been at Apple since 1997, says the incidents aren’t reflective of the Apple she knows, but acknowledged employees and the company do sometimes fall short. Apple, she said, investigated the issues raised in the articles.

“Commensurate actions have been taken,” Young Smith said, noting that disciplinary actions can range from an informal conversation to dismissal. She declined to say what was done in these specific cases, citing privacy concerns.

That is often the case: Any actions companies do take are often shielded and no one knows that there might actually be a price for such behavior. The tone then becomes one that makes it appear that tech companies are sweeping such issues under the rug.

Young Smith said Apple is committed to diversity in its many forms, noting it is an issue long important to Apple and one that CEO Tim Cook has made a priority.

Without a wide range of perspectives, she said “we cannot continue to be the great innovator we constantly strive to be.”

Cook himself came out rather famously in a column he wrote and has since been vocal with regards to LGBTQ issues, including the need for a national employment non-discrimination act.

But even companies like Apple and Intel, which have been more vocal advocates on the need for diversity, remain largely white and male. Women only make up 32 percent of Apple’s workforce, for example. That’s up two percentage points from two years ago and roughly on par with Google and Facebook, but still far short of having a truly representative workforce.

This has consequences — in hiring and recruitment as well as when it comes to creating an inclusive culture. Most of Apple’s engineering teams are dominated by men and it is not uncommon for women in tech to experience sexism in different forms.

In another incident described in the Mic article, a female employee recalled hearing one male co-worker tell another that he sounded like he was on his “man period.”

Asked how she would respond if she heard such talk, Young Smith noted that people tend not to say such things around her, but added that if she did hear that kind of talk, she hoped she would have the courage to call “time out.” Other employees, she said, might prefer to address things afterward, but Young Smith said she wants a company where people do call one another out.

“I don’t think people are too shy about doing it,” Young Smith said, “but I am also very cognizant that we are still 70/30 in our very hard-core engineering team. We have to be cognizant that someone may not feel that their voice is heard or valued.”

Deciding just what to do to change that is trickier, Young Smith said.

The company is looking at ways to improve the training it gives its managers as well as some of the courses in Apple University, but Young Smith said she is skeptical of top-down corporate lectures.

Nor does she see creating a giant diversity team as the answer. Rather, she said she wants 140,000 people who all feel it is their personal responsibility to make Apple more inclusive.

As for the articles, Young Smith said she is most concerned that Apple employees, especially women and people of color, will now feel like they can’t safely speak up if they experience discrimination.

“The unfortunate consequence of this is that we may have lost the trust of others,” she said.

Young Smith is particularly concerned about preserving the women-at-Apple mailing list that was the source of the emails leaked to Mic. The list has more than 1,000 participants and is an important place for people to talk about their experiences, good and bad, Young Smith said.

“We cannot risk losing that,” she said. “We have to have a safe place for people to do that.”

At the same time, Young Smith says the company may need to also find new places for people to share their concerns. “I think we need to constantly reevaluate the tools we have and think about what could be more effective.”

As we talked on Friday, Young Smith said she was finalizing an email she planned to send to the group talking about the issues raised in the articles and her personal commitment to making sure women at Apple are supported.

“As a woman (and a) leader, I think I have an even greater responsibility that I am listening to all the women, all the people of color, who may not feel as heard,” she said.

Addressing the impact of the articles, in addition to the specific incidents described, quickly became a top priority this week, not just for Young Smith, but also for Cook.

“In the midst of all this, he was deep down with all of us to understand what has transpired and what can we learn,” Young Smith said. And that came in a week where Cook was taking part in a board meeting and overseeing a major product launch.

“I think what that says is this is every bit as important as our products,” Young Smith said.

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