Diversity in Silicon Valley: A flap over Twitter

Shares

From The Economist Events: Pride and Prejudice 

Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, and one of the best known faces of that problem is Twitter.

The lack of women on its board or in its senior management prompted criticism of the messaging site ahead of its initial public offering in 2013, and has dogged the company ever since. Whilst it is debatable how much the firm’s current woes, including a tumbling share price and series of top management changes, result from a lack of diversity, the row over women, in which the firm’s then CEO tweeted against critics, certainly marked a turning point in public sentiment towards Twitter.

So much so that every effort by Twitter to address the criticisms seem to generate as much derision as plaudits. Witness its recent appointment of Jeffrey Siminoff as Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion. Usually, when a firm hires a top executive away from Apple, as Twitter did in this case, this is regarded as something of a coup. Yet media reports, and the Twittersphere, accentuated the negative. “Like others in the news and tech industries, I wondered why Twitter would hire a white male in a very public diversity position,” Mark Luckie, Twitter’s former manager of journalism and news, and an African-American critical of the firm’s lack of outreach to blacks, told NBC. “Twitter’s new diversity head is yet another white guy,” thundered the New York Post, noting that he replaces a woman in the role.

One oddity in this critique is that, whilst white and male, Mr Siminoff is a member of a minority group, being a gay man. This did not impress the New York Post however, which argues that “championing gays and gay causes are a way of life in the City by the Bay; recruiting and promoting women and people of colour, er, not so much!” It is true that there are a handful of famous gay men in Silicon Valley, including Tim Cook, the boss of Apple, and Peter Thiel, a billionaire venture capitalist. But start-up culture is not known for being especially LGBT friendly. Moreover, there is a growing recognition that under-represented groups of all kinds are more likely to improve their lot if they ally with each other, rather than perceive the world as a zero sum game in which gay men can only prosper by keeping down straight women or blacks. There is certainly no reason to assume that Mr Siminoff being a gay man would make him less likely to advocate for other under-represented groups; indeed, it is likelier that his appreciation of the benefits of diversity would influence his behaviour towards people of every variety.

Of course, symbols can matter. Whether or not a firm has sufficient diversity, however, is best judged by looking at the composition of a workforce, or a board, as a whole, rather than the skin-colour, gender or sexuality of whoever occupies any particular job. The fact that Mr Simonoff performed strongly in a similar role at Apple surely ought to count for something. In his final year, Apple hired 65% more women, 50% more blacks, and 66% more Latinos, although the firm still remains two-thirds male and over half white. Whether or not he is a good choice for Twitter should surely depend, in the first instance, on whether he executes the company’s plan, announced last summer, to increase by the end of 2016 women to 35% of its overall workforce, 25% of its leadership and 16% of its tech roles, as well as significantly increasing the firm’s employment of other under-represented minorites. He got off to a promising start on January 26th, when Twitter announced its most significant female hire so far, recruiting Leslie Berland from American Express to be the company’s chief marketing officer.

*Full Credit given to The Economist Events: Pride and Prejudice

The Economist’s Pride & Prejudice initiative is advancing the global discussion on why LGBT inclusion is good for business. Tune in for our live stream, click on #ECONPRIDE in Moovz now!