Apple may be changing the world—but it still hasn’t changed its diversity problem

Making a woman smile went way too far—and it could've been avoided.


Derrick Clifton

Internet Culture

Published Sep 10, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 12:14 am CDT

Every time Apple launches a new product or innovation, the world pays attention. And rightfully so.

The corporate giant stands at the forefront of many advances in technology, and even cultural shifts. Over the years, the Internet has stood still during the unveiling of gadgets and features such as the iPod, iPad, Apple TV, and Macbook Air, with each presentation functioning as a major media moment. But at a Wednesday event, astute observers collectively cringed during a product demonstration, where a representative from Adobe shared the extensive features of a new suite of products available on the iPad Pro—including one that allows for relative ease in image manipulation.

Of all the photos in the world they could’ve chosen, as the Verge’s Chris Plante highlighted, the Adobe presenter chose one of a woman with a relatively blank facial expression. With a few flicks of a finger he turned her pout into a slight grin, literally forcing the pictured woman to take on a different facial expression at his behest. The audience clapped. But the response on social media was far from cheerful—because the demo reinforced a sexist double standard, where men police women for not smiling or presenting themselves in an appealing way.

To be sure, it’s a snafu that both Adobe, and especially Apple—the event host—could have avoided if women were more involved in the feature unveiling process. “If you’re going to give a presentation that will be seen all over the world, consult as diverse an audience as you can,” Plante wrote. “You have the money.”

Apple may have the money, and they may be trying to be more inclusive and diverse. But the Wednesday presentation, and the overwhelming lack of any presenters that weren’t white men, signals just how much further the company has to go.

Although some on the Internet—mainly men—believe the outcry is just another non-controversy cooked up by feminists (it’s not), the action during the presentation sends a potentially damaging message about women should express themselves, especially in a man’s presence. As Soraya Chemaly wrote a few years ago at Salon, it’s an issue that crops up in gendered forms of discrimination, including street harassment.

“Without exception, [Smile, baby] means a man is entirely comfortable telling a woman, probably one he doesn’t even know, what he wants her to do with her body to please him,” Chemaly noted. “This suggests a lack of respect for other people’s bodily integrity and autonomy. The phrase, and others more sexually explicit, are verbal expressions of male entitlement.”

And when women don’t comply when men ask them to smile, especially strangers, it can have dire consequences. 

“I have been called every conceivable gendered slur under the sun for not complying with the sexualized demands of total strangers in public places,” Chemaly wrote. “I’m talking about boys and men muttering obscenities, making pornographic suggestions,  touching people they don’t know in intimate ways, lurking on stoops, staring from benches, and following girls in cars. It puts a damper on a sunny day when you go for a walk and someone yells that you’re a ‘fucking slut’ because you don’t respond to their request that you stop and talk to them.”

This is what happens when male behaviors reinforce the ages-old notion that women are better “seen, not heard.” In following with this sexist worldview, women only exist only for male pleasure—rather than having individual desires, aspirations, and dreams of their own. It’s the social attitude that has historically undergirded sex discrimination in the workplace and certain industries—including and especially Silicon Valley.

Even worse, prior to the “smiling” demonstration, there had reportedly been no woman on the stage to deliver a presentation. And then, finally, as Mic’s Julie Zeilinger notes, came Irene Walsh, a user interface designer.

The overwhelming lack of diverse presenters at the Apple keynote event is one of the clearest signs yet of the company’s struggle against the tech industry’s pervasive white, male-dominated culture. As USA Today reported in August, Apple’s 2015 inclusion and diversity report showed the company hadn’t made many notable strides when compared with their 2014 figures.

Despite reporting that 50 percent of hires in the first six months of 2015 were women, black, Native American, or Latino, the sea change has been relatively slow. “[L]ike other major technology companies, Apple is still overwhelmingly male and white,” wrote USA Today’s Jessica Guynn. “Some 69 percent of the company is male and 54 percent is white. Leadership of the company is 72 percent male and 63 percent white. Technical employees are 53 percent white. Those percentages barely budged since last year.”

Understandably, any given company will need more than one calendar year of dedicated effort to fully implement a goal as large and important such as inclusion and diversity. Yet for major Apple events, such as the Wednesday presentations, how hard would it have been to feature speakers who weren’t overwhelmingly white and male, given the company’s current diversity outlook? If the company’s tech employees are 47 percent people of color, and 28 percent of the leadership is female, then there’s certainly some ability to create space for speakers who do the same work, yet reflect different backgrounds and experiences.

With the existing ranks at Apple, it shouldn’t have been difficult to consult any woman from within—or outside experts knowledgeable about issues of gender—regarding the content of their presentation. More likely than not, someone would’ve said something about why, regardless of intention, the effect of photoshopping a pouting woman to smile is a display of implicit bias, where a woman’s autonomy gets overpowered by a man’s wishes.

For a company that’s “changing the world” with its innovations, as multiple headlines routinely laud, Apple seems to be charging the way forward while looking backward. Technological advances are key to leaving a lasting mark on society, for sure. But in order to sustain that legacy, sometimes it starts by changing from within. And Apple is equipped to do just that. 

Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice. Follow Derrick on Twitter, @DerrickClifton.

Illustration by Jason Reed

Share this article
*First Published: Sep 10, 2015, 8:00 pm CDT