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Michelle Quinn: Tim Cook and the bottom line advantage of being different

By Michelle Quinn, San Jose Mercury News

At a time when Silicon Valley is under increased scrutiny for its mostly white, mostly male workforce, Tim Cook's revelation that he is gay adds a new dimension.

Should having a gay CEO matter to a corporation?

Many people would say it shouldn't, and in his essay for Bloomberg Businessweek, Cook says as a gay man, he has been treated no differently at Apple. Of course, in one sense he's in the majority at the iPhone company, which reported its workforce was 70 percent male globally.

But in the context of the discussion about the diversity of the tech workforce, a gay leader or a black one or a female one could make a huge difference.
As Cook wrote, being gay has helped him in his professional life. It gave him the "skin of a rhinoceros" but it also offered him a unique perspective.

"Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority," he wrote. And it has "provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day. It's made me more empathetic, which has led to a richer life."

When tech companies released their workforce demographics this year, they said they had to do better. They argued that a more diverse workforce produces better products. "Inclusion inspires innovation," said Apple.

I've been skeptical.

If that was true, wouldn't shareholders be clamoring for an overhaul of the homogeneous leadership teams, boards and workers at tech firms? I was not convinced by examples like the one about tech products being harder to use for lefties because they were created by a team of right-handed people.
But Cook has convinced me that a CEO who has been an outsider may make a better leader.

Not just because he's gay, but because his experience of being gay has made him more empathetic. If he listens to people, not just those who are from his own social circle, he may be better able to unlock potential ideas.

Researchers call this "two-dimensional diversity." One dimension is an inherent trait, like being gay or black. The second is an acquired trait, such as learning to understand different cultures from foreign travel.

Just 22 percent of U.S. companies have two-dimensional diversity at the top, according to a report from the Center for Talent Innovation, which looked at U.S. white-collar employers.

Sixty-three percent of employees at these companies say their ideas receive endorsement from leadership, the report said.

Compare that with companies without diverse leadership, where 45 percent of employees said they receive leadership support for their ideas.

"What we see at the top of companies that have two-dimensional diversity is that they are far better as a whole to reach their innovation potential," said Laura Sherbin, executive vice president and director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation.

There may be another economic benefit to being out and to being openly different at work.

More than 80 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual people reported hiding aspects of their identity at work, according to a study by Deloitte, the consulting firm. Why? Because their bosses expected it.

Cook's revelation signaled that era may be ending. And if employees can spend less time managing their identity at work, there should be a bottom line advantage to firms.

"Tim spoke about his identity as being central to his professional life, as well as his personal life, and this is key," said Freada Kapor Klein, co-chair of the Kapor Center for Social Impact. "Employees should not have to check themselves at the door. As Silicon Valley wrestles with diversity, it's important that everyone who has ever been marginalized or excluded uses that to build empathy with others and extend a hand."

Maybe Cook's revelation will bring on a more nuanced discussion about workforce diversity than a snapshot of tech company numbers, reminding us that what the individuals behind the numbers do is what really matters.

ABOUT THE WRITER
Michelle Quinn is a business columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Readers may send her email at mquinn@mercurynews.com.

 



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