Corporate Diversity Should Start At The Board

A blog about business and economics.
Sept. 4 2012 7:58 AM

The Unbearable Whitemaleness of Apple's Executive Team

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Apple promoted a couple of people recently and rejiggered the senior executives page on their website, leaving us with the above tableaux of white dudes. As Dan Frommer remarked, "The main diversity questions on the page seem to be, 'Is he British?' or 'Is his shirt blue?' "

But Frommer is also generous, arguing "I don’t have any sort of conspiracy theory that Apple doesn’t want more women among its executive ranks—it’s an industry-wide challenge that’s widely covered."

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I don't have a conspiracy theory either, but I don't think it takes a conspiracy theory. Obviously nobody's going to be as reckless enough with a multibillion dollar enterprise to hire someone at the senior vice president level simply because you want to add a woman to the team. You want to hire the best possible candidate. But if you start with an all-male team of senior executives in an industry that's dominated by men, then like magic nine times out of 10—if not 99 times out of 100—you're going to discover that the best possible candidate just so happens to be a man. To get serious about breaking the cycle, you do need to find some specific space where you say, "guys we need to pick more women."

A great place to start, in my opinion, is with the board of directors. That's because nobody has any idea what makes someone qualified to serve on a board of directors and nobody knows how to measure board of directors performance. At a failing company, board slots can become important pawns in investor power struggles. But the board of a successful firm is just a mix of whimsy and patronage. Absolutely nothing is stopping you from adding women to your board other than a lack of desire to add women to your board. Apple currently has eight directors of whom two are women. It would be child's play to shift that to 50/50 if you wanted to. And committing to a 50/50 board would be both a powerful signal and a way to start breaking the cycle whereby male-dominated groups of decision-makers consistently discover that all the best-qualified candidates are other men.

But obviously Apple's far from unique in this regard. Male-dominated boards are the rule all across the corporate landscape. They just happen to have been in the news recently. But the European Union is rolling out an initiative to require that EU firms have women holding 40 percent of board seats by 2020, which I think is a promising initiative. Doing anything like that is very much against the American grain, but that makes it one great way to tell the difference between a firm that's actually striving for diversity under challenging circumstances and one that's just paying lip service to it. Board slots are important, but allocated fairly arbitrarily. A company that wants diversity has a great opportunity to use its board to start walking the walk.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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