Open Thinkering


Because obviously I’m a male chauvinist pig.

Update: I feel like I’ve grown a lot since writing this angry post. I don’t feel like I’m the same person that wrote this, but have kept it up as an example of how sometimes I get things very wrong.

Last week I keynoted the DeFT OER dissemination conference. I enjoyed the event, received good feedback afterwards and thought it was well-received. Certainly no-one raised any major issues either in the opportunities for question-and-answer, nor during the rest of the day when I was visible and around to talk to those in the audience.

That’s why this blog post (on the official JISC-funded project blog) caught me by surprise. Now, I know that what I probably should do is ignore or perhaps downplay it. But I’m not going to, because I’m actually outraged that the author feels like she can get away with misrepresenting me in this way. You can find out what I actually said (I recorded it) by going to my conference blog.

I now have the ‘my mother test’. My mother reached the grand old age of sixty a few months ago and now if I can explain it to my mother, then I think that the average person can understand it. So I thought how could I explain ‘openness’ to my mother in a way that she could understand? Because ‘Open Educational Resources’ is kind of a supply-side term.

Note that I equate my mother with ‘the average person’. The author fails to quote me at any time in the post, claiming that I’ve ‘dissed’ my elders (particularly my mother). Why, she wonders, did I use a female example here?

I’ll tell you why.

I used my grandmother as an example of a digital refusnik because both my grandfathers died before I was five, and she’s the only person of that generation that I know well enough to comment upon. I used my mother as an example not because she’s female but because my father has perhaps slightly more advanced skills than others of that generation. I also showed a video at one point showing the (male) rapper DMX as an example of someone who’s less than digitally literate. But he’s black, so presumably I’m a racist as well as a misogynist.

Using the not-so-subtle device of rhetorical questioning the post goes on to ask whether it was fair that I implied that my mother was intellectually challenged. Really? Is this not just a case of someone getting on their hobby horse and riding it off into the distance (whilst I’m left stranded on a scapegoat)? I’m genuinely shocked that, if they felt so strongly about the issue, they didn’t raise it with me on the day.

So I’m not overly-deferent to my elders. So I don’t venerate academia. So I don’t engage in hand-wringing over the gender of the examples I give.

So what?

17 thoughts on “Because obviously I’m a male chauvinist pig.

  1. Doug, since I am GUILTY of using the mom test myself, I left a comment at that blog post. Sometimes it seems like people positively want to be offended by things. It makes conversation hard! 🙂

  2. I wrote a comment twice, deleted it twice. Will leave one on her blog in a few hours. Makes me furious that someone takes THAT as the most important thing to draw from a talk. As if you’d ‘diss’ your nearest and dearest!

  3. The mother test is something I have used in the past talking to developers. If you can’t show your mother how to do something with the technology, it is too complicated. It is not sexist or ageist, just a good yardstick

    1. So if we refer to women at a conference, we get called sexist. Yet if we don’t refer to women in a conference, we are called sexist. Makes perfect sense.

    2. But the difference is that Doug is saying that if he can explain it to *HIS* mother that the average person can understand. Not your mother, or that of another reader. HIS. That’s not the same at all.

  4. Hi Doug – whether or not this is an offensive stereotype (and to me, it is, tbh – Geekfeminismwiki explains why clearer than I could and is generally a brilliant resource – I know I’ve used it to think about my presentations) the fact remains that you are coming across quite badly in your response to this.

    You’ve flamed a project-blogger, a fairly new blogger, for daring to have an opinion on your presentation. If you are going to do these keynote gigs, you’ve got accept that some people might take exception to what you say – EVEN IF YOU THINK YOU DIDN’T DO ANYTHING WRONG. The smart thing to do would be to apologise first, then say you didn’t mean for it to be taken offensively. Then explain why.

    But the first part is the apology. Not “how dare you”. That’s not the act of a digitally literate expert. This isn’t YouTube comments.

    I’ve had to write to my project to apologise for your actions – because I feel vaguely co-responsible being (a) a man and (b) someone who knows you. I’d appreciate it if you apologised too.

    At the moment neither you or Mozilla are looking particularly good. Sort it out. Thanks.

  5. I understand your reaction Doug, and I humbly suggest you step back and look at your comment (exactly as you posted it) in a broader setting.

    Although your mom may be a great example of a “common person,” and individually the comment is well intended, on an aggregate level it’s part of an divisive overall attitude towards women in tech. Women have it pretty hard in tech space, and their intelligence comes into question considerably more than most men, and the mom test is simply an extension of this common theme that subtly reinforces stereotypes.

    You have an opportunity here to be more sensitive to an important cultural issue in tech. There’s a better way to address getting feedback from your customers who may have a different perspective from you, the creator of your product. I suggest, with love, that you put your ego aside and help move this conversation in a positive direction.

  6. I think it is a bit of a cliche (I know, because I’ve used the dad test in talks), but I disagree with David & Sarah that it is sexist, but I guess these are fine judgement calls. I think David is being a bit over-sensitive apologising on your behalf (and apologising for being a male, come on David!). But he is probably right in the way to approach it. Write the angry response first, then delete it, then write the considered one, which goes something like “sorry if you took it that way and it caused offence. I certainly didn’t mean it in any condescending or sexist manner, I used my mother as a convenient example of someone who sits outside our sphere.” You could then go on to say things like “I do take issue with some of the language and tone used here… ” etc.

  7. Thanks for the advice, especially the ‘write the angry post then delete it’ stuff. I’m leaving it there, on the advice of my wife – a woman I have a lot of respect for. 🙂

  8. Maybe instead of hand-wringing about your own reputation, you could take a second to think about what it’s like to be a woman in tech who hears messages *over and over* that tell her she’s not as good at computers and her talents aren’t as valued? I don’t know you, but this post just makes you look really self-absorbed.

    As others have mentioned, the Geek Feminism wiki is a great resource for this:

  9. Woah, this is interesting.

    I saw Doug talk about his gran when I saw him speak at TEDx warwick. I liked the real life example, it rang true to me, i liked that there was a photo. I was there with my mum. What did she think? Well, my mum is a tech early adopter, she blogged and tweeted way before me. She was in agreement with him about the need for usable intuitive devices that meet a need, which is what he was talking about. Neither of us thought there was any sexism behind it. Having met his wife Hannah I don’t think she’s let him get away with that either.

    What does this mean to the issue in hand? The blogger had every right to share her interpretation of his talk, and this is a useful issue to surface. But it was quite rude. Doug also has the right to defend his sharing of an authentic story, though Doug, I think was rude back.

    Not a nice episode, but for my part I don’t think Doug is being sexist in talking about his gran. I’ve meet plenty of closet sexists in IT but he isn’t one of them

    1. There’s always this confusion when charges about sexism arise. Better to think in terms of the effects of a particular action.

      By choosing this particular example, it’s still possible to create an environment that isn’t hospitable to women — even if it was a true anecdote, and even if no harm was intended. That seems to be a truth lost in all this bloviation about whether the talk was “sexist”. If I want (for some reason) to judge another human being, then intention matters. If I want to promote change in the world, it doesn’t; the effects of an action must be understand *regardless* of the motivation behind it.

      In other words, what matters is how the particular choice of examples *actually* makes the audience feel, not rambling about how they *should* respond to it.

  10. I think it’s a marvellous example of people jumping on their Chariots of Righteousness. “ooh! You can’t say that! That means *this*”, “ooh! You can’t do that! That means *this*”, “look what this wiki says!!”.

    Given all the arrogant and blinkered idiots out there in any scene, not just “tech”, you’d think these golden winged angels of all that is proper and righteous would focus their efforts. Rather than sniffing out fault and targets wherever they possibly can.

    Oh and, David…I like you. But FFS…get a grip. “I feel I should apologise for being a man”. Blimey.

  11. I don’t think you’re a male chauvinist pig, Doug. But you’re a dude and with that comes male privilege that doesn’t always make these sorts of things — why the “my mom doesn’t get tech” example is a sexist one — readily apparent to you.

    I was pretty miffed when Nick Bilton wrote an article last year saying that Twitter would be better if his sister could use it. ( I don’t think Nick’s a pig either. His sister, much like your mom, is his go-to example for this sort of thing.

    And while, for you two, these are personal examples drawn from your everyday life, for women the personal cuts another way. We are greeted all the time with the expectations that we don’t “get tech.” I don’t think you meant to perpetuate a tech world that’s hostile to women, but this is the subtle sort of thing that continues to make it so.

  12. Hi Doug,
    Interesting post, especially when filtered through a digital literacy viewer.
    Having met you in real life a good few times and followed you online for an Internet millennium I’d hazard a guess that you are not a ‘male chauvinist pig’.
    But the tone of your response, how dare you and the title of this post seem to be a bit of an escalation in tone. Obviously you would be upset by the post but I wonder if your refutation here and in the comment on the other blog might have been more effective if it had used less heated language. (I guess from your ‘post in anger’ comment you might feel the same).
    I am not saying I’d do any better, I’ve ended up in a few flames online and off(and I don’t think this is a blaze). I would also be very upset if something like this happened to me
    A scan of the post gave me a hint that, Nicky Watts, is not as digital experienced as yourself (I might be wrong but not many folk write their doctoral thesis online or produce as much high quality digital content as yourself).
    So I am wondering if part of ‘digital literacy’ should be a look at online conversation, how it differs from f2f, definition of trolling, and the fact that online discussion has difficulties?

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