Have you tried the “white boy” test?
From time to time, someone in the Ubuntu community writes about the experience of introducing a “normal person” (someone who has no specific expertise with computers) to Ubuntu. These accounts provide useful feedback to Ubuntu designers and developers working to make Ubuntu easier to understand and use. They are no substitute for rigorous usability studies, but are nonetheless worthwhile. By explaining where the subject got stuck, they help to identify the most obvious usability problems. By celebrating the user’s successes, they help to build a sense of accomplishment and momentum around usability. They usually go something like this:
My grandmother is 104 years old and has never used a mobile phone before, much less a computer. One lazy Sunday afternoon, I introduced her to Ubuntu. I helped her into the den, showed her the mouse and keyboard, inserted the installation CD…
They go on to describe the subject’s attempts to use Ubuntu for common tasks, without any prior experience of the system. I will boldly hypothesize, based on my own reading and without gathering any data, that the subjects are predominantly female. Perhaps the earliest examples of this were our references to Jeff Waugh‘s mother, in early Ubuntu thought experiments, as an example of an uninitiated Ubuntu user.
These generalizations idealize women as uninformed, technological novices or intellectual inferiors, which is particularly striking to some of us who learned computing from our mothers. This is not to say that statements like these are the origin of gender stereotypes, but they do display and reinforce these (often unconscious) beliefs.
In analyzing statements about gender roles, it is sometimes helpful to substitute for gender some other trait, such as skin color or race. This helps to illustrate bias, because many of us are more sensitized to racial stereotypes: is Ubuntu so easy that a white boy could use it? Does it pass the white boy test? If my white boyfriend can figure it out, you can too! This can be a useful way to “test” language and reveal implications.
We should think twice when we read, and make the effort to investigate our own speech as well. Unfortunately, our first impulse is often to deny the possibility of bias, and treat the situation like an argument we want to win. Instead, we should try to recognize these moments as opportunities to improve our awareness, and listen for new information in the reactions of others.
It would be a huge step forward for us as a community to do better at this. We will know that Ubuntu has truly arrived, though, when becomes more popular among white people than Apple.