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The Value of Diversity

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Diversity is not just a nice thing. It isn't just about fairness or equal opportunity. Diversity is good business, essential business, especially for companies that market to women -- or are covered by them.

If you have any doubt, consider the iPad.

Is there a woman in America who did not laugh, or at least roll her eyes, the minute she heard that the newest, hottest tablet computer from one of America's most ingenuous companies was going to sound like a feminine hygiene product? The iKotex is what most people I know are calling it, with apologies to Kotex.

So where were those women? The short answer is that, plainly, they were not in the room. Go to Apple's home page and look at the pictures and bios of key executives. I'll tell you who you'll find: Steve, Timothy, Scott, Jonathan, Ron, Bob, Peter, Mark, Philip, Bertrand and Bruce. All white, all men. If there is a "top" woman at Apple, at best she's No. 12.

The video released by Apple to trumpet the genius of the iPad (it really does) is equally un-diverse. Only men use the iPad. Only men talk about the iPad. It's almost as bad as the name.

That might work if you were selling jock straps. It doesn't work if you want American consumers -- half of whom are women -- to buy your product. Even car companies, notoriously male at the top, use women in their promotional campaigns. Did they really think we wouldn't notice?

This is not a new issue at Apple. Every year in my law school class on gender discrimination, we review the latest Catalyst survey of Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies in America that still have no women on their boards of directors, or no women among the top earners. Every year, Apple showed up on both lists. Finally, in 2008, Apple announced that Andrea Jung, the CEO of Avon (a very un-Apple-like company that is full of women who sell to women, starting at the top), was joining Steve Jobs, Bill Campbell, Millard Drexler, Al Gore, Arthur D. Levinson, Eric Schmidt and Jerry York on its board of directors. Google's Schmidt has since left the board, leaving Andrea and the guys.

I am sure that each and every one of the men who serves in a key position at Apple is more than qualified for his position. But qualifications need to be defined more broadly if they are to reflect accurately what the business really needs. If half of your business depends on women, then there is something wrong with any definition of qualifications that doesn't take account of diversity.

I am absolutely certain that no one at Apple sat down and decided that women should be excluded from all the top positions. My guess is that the issue just never came up. That's the problem. These days, most discrimination is so totally unconscious that the people involved don't even know they're discriminating. It's just that when they think about who the most qualified person is, they think of someone just like themselves. And when they're sitting in a room full of people who look just like them, it doesn't occur to them that someone is missing.

I know a lot of women who spend their days in front of Apple computers who are almost embarrassed that the company they so love and admire could frankly be so blind and stupid. And finding out why doesn't make it better. This is Apple's chance to change.

Some years ago, a friend was having dinner with a group of male movie executives and agents, when George Burns stopped at their table. He looked at the group, shook his head, and in that special way laughed and said: "Get a dame."

George had Gracie. Apple needs to find some dames. They will make a great company better.

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