CUPERTINO, Calif. — Faculty and students from historically black colleges crowded onto Apple’s campus this week, part of an effort to improve the company’s diversity problem. It’s a problem the tech giant appears to making an ever-so-slight dent in, according to the company’s annual diversity report released Wednesday.
Apple is 32 percent female, 9 percent black and 12 percent Hispanic — a single percentage point increase in each category from last year, according to the report. The company also said it made stronger progress with new hires: Out of a global workforce of 125,000, 37 percent of new hires in the last 12 months were women. Out of a U.S. workforce of 80,000, 27 percent of hires came from underrepresented minority groups in the last year. That’s a 6 percent increase from three years ago.
Apple's report said the firm has also closed its wage gaps for female and minority workers.
The report comes at a time when the technology industry is under scrutiny for its diversity problem. Under public pressure, technology companies began to release their diversity numbers publicly three years ago. The resulting outcry hasn’t let up since, echoing a sense of unfairness that so few women and minorities have been able to benefit from Silicon Valley’s prosperity engine.
Over the past few years, scant progress has been made. Numbers have budged in the low single digits — or sometimes not at all, despite pledges from tech companies to do better.
Technology firms, from Yahoo to Facebook, have unleashed a slew of programs, from actual hiring targets to unconscious-bias training to recruiting partnerships with organizations that represent women in technology and historically black universities. Some companies have attempted experimental strategies: Facebook has a policy of considering at least one woman or minority for every open slot. Productivity app Slack has experimented with not showing hiring managers the names of job candidates or the schools they attended; such information has been shown to trigger unconscious bias.
Apple's "numbers are encouraging,” said Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. But, she added, “it would be great if they could show more dramatic differences over time.”
Overall, the numbers are too small to change the perception among minority employees that few people look like them in the halls of this largely white and Asian campus, said Bowles. But that’s more than can be said for Apple's rivals, Google and Facebook. Black and Hispanic employees make up just 2 and 3 percent of Google’s 57,100-person workforce, as of January this year.
At Facebook, black and Hispanic employees make up 2 and 4 percent of the employee base. Despite commitments to diversity, neither Google nor Facebook have made a dent in those numbers since they first announced them in 2014.
Critics have pointed out that Apple is more diverse because a significant percentage of the company’s employee base are lower-paid workers in its retail stores, which Google and Facebook do not have. But Apple’s gains this year did not come exclusively from retail. There was a 1 percent increase for women and blacks in technical jobs.
At Apple’s campus on Wednesday, the company hosted a delegation of faculty from more than a dozen historically black colleges, while a class of senior engineering and science majors from historically black colleges who had interned at Apple presented technology projects they had built. Apple has hired eight of those 33 interns. The group was affiliated with a scholarship program for students from historically black colleges that Apple launched last year.
“Many students from historically black colleges didn’t think it was attainable to come out to California,” said Tiffany King, director of Worldwide Human Resources at Apple, who runs the historically black colleges scholarship program. “We’re bridging that gap.” King said the diversity found at Apple's retail stores was not an accident. When she ran HR for the company's retail business, King recruited specifically from historically black colleges. Now she is applying a similar approach to Apple's entire workforce.
One of the interns, Angelica Willis, 21, senior computer science North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, said Apple made the experience special. "I wasn't just another intern coming in -- they make sure you have what you need to be successful here."
Bowles said one challenge in assessing the tech industry’s progress is that companies are selectively transparent — showing certain numbers while not revealing other relevant information. For example, she said, it’s tough to assess overall progress without knowing about turnover and retention. Gains in new hires may be cancelled out by turnover because women and minorities also leave tech companies in higher numbers than white men. Research has suggested this is more an effect of feeling pushed out or not being supported than it is related to family reasons, she said.
Having a more diverse pool of leaders can significantly impact people’s perceptions of diversity, Bowles said. Among its senior levels, Apple did not grow the ranks of women or blacks, while Hispanics made a 1 percent gain. Last year the company added an African American, former Boeing executive James Bell, to its board of directors.
“Apple is making major progress on all levels," the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote in a statement to The Washington Post. "Its overall black and Latino employee representation — at 8% — is perhaps the most inclusive of any tech company."
Big changes to hiring practices are slow to happen in any industry. And many diversity programs have been known to backfire.
In a recent study of 830 companies that had implemented compulsory diversity training for managers, researchers found that numbers of African American women and Asian American men and women decreased five years after.