Although it’s a hurdle the tech industry has long failed to clear, high-profile incidents this year have put the battle for gender diversity in Silicon Valley in the spotlight. In February, Uber engineer Susan Fowler published an explosive blog post detailing allegations of sexism at the company, an incident that contributed to Travis Kalanick’s ousting as CEO and may even inform new legislation. In June, a prominent venture capitalist was accused by multiple women of making unwanted advances during business meetings. More recently, a viral anti-diversity “manifesto” written by a Google employee ignited a controversy that eventually resulted in the author’s firing, and forced Google to confront some of the sexist beliefs accepted in the tech industry.
Against that backdrop, one would expect Apple to make an unusually concerted effort to have more women appear onstage at today’s iPhone announcement. Instead, the event played out much like other Apple keynotes. The very first person CEO Tim Cook invited to speak at the event was Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, who gave an update on the company’s stores and, memorably if controversially, said the company envisioned them as modern “town squares.” She spoke for just over six minutes before Cook returned.
No other woman took the stage today. Deidre Caldbeck, who, according to LinkedIn, works on product marketing for the Apple Watch, briefly appeared on a paddleboard as part of a demonstration of Apple Watch calls, answering remotely in a lighthearted exchange. Even taking that exchange into account, women spoke for approximately seven minutes throughout the two-hour event.
The problem is not a new one for the company. Responding in 2015 to a question about the lack of women at WWDC keynotes, Cook said he “totally” agreed with the idea that more women needed to be spotlighted onstage. Still, the number of women who actually take the stage remains dismally small. At this year’s WWDC keynote, in June, women spoke for about nine minutes during a nearly two-hour talk, according to Mic. In other recent years, women were sidelined at similar rates, the site calculated.
Apple’s workforce is 68 percent male overall, according to company statistics, while the divide in its tech division is even more stark: 77 percent of employees working there are male. The company is not the only major player in the industry that’s struggling with diversity, but the iPhone announcement is arguably the tech industry’s biggest moment of the year. At a time when the problem of diversity is on so many minds, a failure to highlight more women — or to even demonstrate progress in doing so — seems like a wasted opportunity.