The big news at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference always revolves around new apps and updated operating systems. Today's event marked a completely different turning point for Apple: Women took the stage during a keynote presentation.
Jennifer Bailey, vice president of Apple Pay, appeared before the crowd of software developers and journalists on Monday to discuss progress in mobile payments. A second woman, Susan Prescott, gave the pitch for Apple's forthcoming News app. It marks the first time female executives have made an on-stage appearance during an Apple keynote presentation since 2010, when Zynga's Jen Herman gave a demonstration of the game Farmville.
Like its competitors, Apple wants to be seen as working against the image of Silicon Valley as a male-dominated industry. Over the weekend, Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, acknowledged that the industry needs to do a better job on gender issues. The company's much-hyped and highly scrutinized public events have long been noticeable for the absence of prominent women. Christy Turlington, a legendary fashion model, was the only woman to appear during the recent Apple Watch presentation. If you’re keeping track of these presentations as a way to measure progress toward gender equality in Silicon Valley, you could easily make the case that Turlington’s cameo should actually count against Apple. Few people are complaining about a lack of beautiful women being used to draw attention to gadgets.
Compare Apple’s performance with this year’s Google’s I/O developer conference, which took place at the end of May. Arguably the biggest news of the day—Google Now on Tap—was presented by Aparna Chennapragada, the company's director of product management. Chennapragada was one of three women who spoke during the keynote presentation. Ellie Powers, product manager for Google Play, has presented for three years running. The last time Google didn’t have a woman on stage during its annual I/O keynote was 2011.
Microsoft also seemed to make a point of having more women on stage at the keynote for its developer conference, Build, held in late April. Three women took the stage for the keynote, walking through technical subjects such as SQL databases and Saas applications. At the 2014 conference, the only female voice on stage came from Cortana, who sounds like a lady but is really a piece of artificial intelligence technology.
Developer conferences have never been a paragon of gender diversity. A regular tradition at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference is tweeted photos showing a line for the men’s room that extends down the hall next to a completely empty women’s bathroom. When female developers had to wait to use the facilities at I/O this year, some people actually held it up as a triumph.
Of course, counting keynote speakers and measuring bathroom lines isn’t a perfect way to measure the current levels of gender inequality in the tech industry. Google’s workforce isn’t actually any more diverse than Apple’s. About 30 percent of each company’s employees are women, according to recent diversity reports. (Here are reports for Apple, Google, and Microsoft.) Apple actually employs more women in tech positions than Google (20 percent vs. 18 percent), and women make up a higher percentage of leadership positions (28 percent to 22 percent). Three women are on Google’s board compared with Apple's two. Microsoft lags behind both companies, with only 17 percent of its tech jobs and 18 percent of its leadership roles held by women.
The fact that Silicon Valley's biggest companies are starting to give their female employees a chance to be a part of telling their stories seems like progress. But the real achievement will be when it's not news that women are participating in these kind of events.