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Twitter still has a major problem with employee diversity

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Twitter has hired a new head of diversity, news that should have prompted a chorus of cheers from those hoping the company would take the issue more seriously. Jeffrey Siminoff, former director of Worldwide Inclusion & Diversity at Apple, will take on the prominent role. However, more noticeable than his stellar résumé is that Siminoff is a white man in a company full of white men.

Like many others, I was left scratching my head at the news. Only 3 percent of Twitter’s employees are black or Latino, according to publicly released numbers, and Twitter could have made a bold statement by hiring a woman or racial minority for what is ultimately a symbolic role. As the former manager of journalism and news at Twitter and someone who fought for internal diversity, I am dismayed.

Particularly at a company that is lacking in racial and gender diversity, assigning the critical task of changing those ratios to a white man sends the wrong message to the public. If it were any other role, there wouldn’t likely be this level of incredulity. Despite the outcry from underrepresented groups, politicians, and civic officials up to this point, Twitter has only proven further that it has a problem with diversity.

Twitter has only proven further that it has a problem with diversity

The lack of workplace diversity isn’t limited to Twitter. It is a deficiency that plagues Silicon Valley and beyond. The reason Twitter is more heavily scrutinized is because of the marked overrepresentation of minority users on the platform: an estimated 28 percent of online African-Americans and Hispanics use Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center.

The heat that Twitter has received originated in the vocalization from these groups. The new hire could have mitigated the public outcry about diversity, but the company has only fanned the flames. If Twitter did not foresee the backlash that would come from hiring a white male for a diversity position, it is telling of the company itself. Getting people of color and women in the boardroom to have these discussions and perhaps offer alternative viewpoints could save the company from having to confront these issues in the first place.

When news of the announcement cascaded into my Twitter timeline, in my mind I ran through all the possible statements that the company could use to laud Siminoff’s appointment: we had a lot of great candidates and determined he was the best one for the job; we didn’t have many women and minority candidates so we went with the best pick; he works at a company that’s on the same level as Twitter (in this case, Apple) and so we went with someone of his caliber. But these are the same excuses Twitter has used to exclude or overlook minority candidates in the past. It sets a bad precedent if this was indeed the rationale.

To make matters worse, Siminoff is replacing a woman, Janet Van Huysse. Even though the company has struggled with diversity, many of those around her were complimentary of her ongoing attempts to effect change, despite what some saw as a lack of buy-in from executives.

The fact that Siminoff is gay has been touted by some as evidence of his understanding of diversity. In addition to being a black guy, I am gay. I am intimately familiar with the hardships of what it means to be LGBT in the workplace. LGBT inclusion is by no means where it could be in the tech industry. However, San Francisco — the hub of technology mojo — is a city literally paved with rainbows. Take a cruise through the Castro district to see for yourself.

I am intimately familiar with the hardships of what it means to be LGBT in the workplace

In addition, Twitter Open, the company’s resource group for LGBT employees and allies, is one of the most active groups with considerable internal funding and support. The group has marched in San Francisco’s gay pride parade and Twitter itself has hosted the Out for Undergrad Technology conference, among other events. I in no way endorse the comparison of privilege between sexuality and race or gender. However, Twitter’s diversity numbers released in 2015 specifically cite the disparity of gender and race.

In my time at Twitter, the Blackbirds and ALAS (employee resource groups for black and Latino employees, respectively) did not receive the same level of attention, and not for lack of trying. Our cries for executive support went mostly unaddressed. This is most evident in Twitter’s goals that it set for itself this year for hiring and community outreach. According to its own Twitter feed, the company’s recruiting team has not (yet) visited historically black colleges as promised in its blog post. A person of color has yet to be hired in an executive role.

I am proudly black and proudly gay. However, while at Twitter I received far more questions related to my blackness than I did my conspicuous homosexuality. Black people were called into meetings or secretly asked their opinion to speak on black culture. There were a handful of white employees that could have done the same, but they didn’t have the same authority because it wasn’t their culture. Empathy is not the same thing as understanding when it comes to racial diversity. Siminoff’s credentials do not supersede this.

The company remains overwhelmingly white men

There are those who say Twitter should focus on hiring the best person for the job. But in the tech industry, white males are often automatically assumed to be the most competent of applicants, while women and people of color have to be twice as good to measure up to relative mediocrity. Whether Siminoff was the most talented among the candidates is suspect. To his credit, Apple hired 65 percent more female employees, 50 percent more black employees, and 66 percent more Hispanic employees over last year, according to a public statement. However, the company remains overwhelmingly comprised of white men — 69 percent of employees are male and 54 percent are white. The numbers are even more stark in executive leadership. When Siminoff was human resource director of Morgan Stanley, the company was sued by a black employee for "blatant discriminatory treatment," according to court documents.

Despite virtually no attention from Twitter for the majority of its history, people of color have contributed heavily to making it the go-to social platform. Siminoff’s hiring is a 140-character slap in the face. With moves like this, underrepresented communities will ultimately take their content elsewhere. There are several emerging platforms waiting to eat Twitter’s lunch. Instagram was the fastest growing social network of 2014 and now boasts 400 million monthly active users compared to Twitter’s sluggish 320 million; Snapchat now has 100 million daily active users, 400 million snaps a day, and its growth continues to accelerate.

What happens next for Twitter and diversity under the stewardship of Jeffrey Siminoff may be amazing — but for some of its most important and engaging user communities, the damage has already been done.

Mark S. Luckie is a career journalist and author of The Digital Journalist's Handbook and the novel DO U. He is the former manager of journalism and news at Twitter.