Quick hit: “My mom has a PhD in math”

I’m a big fan of advertisement-hacking, and I think quite a lot of people here will get a kick out of this one, so even though it was linked in the linkspam I’m putting it up here:

Public transit ad depicting a brain: note pointing to one side says "Can you solve one of our puzzles" and the note pointing to the other side reads "can you explain it to your mom?".  Text below reads "We're hiring hackers with people skills".  Someone has added a post-it note to the advertisement which reads "My mom has a PhD in math"

Public transit ad depicting a brain: note pointing to one side says "Can you solve one of our puzzles" and the note pointing to the other side reads "can you explain it to your mom?". Text below reads "We're hiring hackers with people skills". Someone has added a post-it note to the advertisement which reads "My mom has a PhD in math"

Edit: If you’re crediting this photo, it was put on twitpic by jessiebennett. Some people are giving GeekFeminism.org all the credit which doesn’t really seem fair!

Edit 2: Note the appology from ITA in the comments.

26 thoughts on “Quick hit: “My mom has a PhD in math”

  1. Tim Chevalier

    Here’s the non-apology reply I got back from ITA when I wrote to them to complain about this ad. ITA believes, apparently, that intent is fucking magic.

    “Dear Tim,
    Thank you for email to us regarding ITA’s job advertisements.

    I can appreciate and understand your comments on our recruiting campaign.Please know that our intention with the creative strategy was certainly not to offend, but instead to engage prospective employees. At ITA Software, we have deep respect for all employees and would not purposely publish an opinion or perspective that could be perceived as insulting. In fact, ITA actively supports diversity in the workplace such as our recent advocacy as the lead sponsor in the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s Massachusetts Aspirations in Computing Affiliate Award. This award is used to encourage young women to choose careers in technology. Also, for your information, the ads are scheduled to come down next week.

    Please review our ‘ITA Gives Back’ page and Press Releases on our website for more information on the programs we support. I hope that you will consider ITA the type of company that you would be proud to work at.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your opinion with us.

    Cara Kretz
    Vice President, Corporate Communications
    ITA Software, Inc.”

    1. Carla Schroder

      Blahblahblah. I’m low class, I want to yell back ‘Liar pants on fire! You have a deep respect for blahblahblah! But not women!’

  2. Cynthia L.

    Great catch. I can’t count how many times I hear the speaker’s mom invoked as the go-to for “generic zero technical know-how person” in all settings (classroom, office, etc). As a geek (and a mom!) I find it super-insulting. I’d love to see this labeled as a thing that gains widespread recognition as one of those things you just don’t say (like “he’s so articulate!” for a black man).

    1. Mary

      Certainly, we’re trying to call out the mother thing when we see it, please add examples to http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/So_simple,_your_mother_could_do_it if you have time.

      However, regarding your analogy, many black anti-racism activists have reported that things like “he’s so articulate” and more blatant slurs are not nearly as unacceptable as this comment implies, see http://www.womanist-musings.com/2008/10/sexism-is-worse-than-racism.html : we’d prefer that you avoid invoking racism in this way on this blog unless you have some experience of being the target of the type of racism you’re talking about.

      1. Cynthia L.

        Indeed. After I said that I thought better of it. But the internets don’t forget! Well, let all learn from my error….

      2. Azkyroth

        So what are you supposed to say if a person who happens to be of recent African descent DOES strike you as being considerably more eloquent and a more skillful, charismatic speaker than others he might be compared with irrespective of race (say, other applicants for the same job, such as, say, President of the United States?)

      3. Anita

        “many black anti-racism activists have reported that things like “he’s so articulate” and more blatant slurs are not nearly as unacceptable as this comment implies”

        ? The WomanistMusings post linked here doesn’t report that, I don’t think. And I’d say that those comments are totally unacceptable, myself.

        As is this terrible ad. Just the other day I saw a tweet or FB post go by for a mobile app “your mom could write.” Ugh. Go geek moms!!!

  3. Joseph Reagle

    It seems to me that the we need a way to refer to someone who is not technically adept, but doesn’t rely upon a gender, racial, or age stereotype, and isn’t pejorative. (Even “clueless” is too unkind.) I’m guilty of this myself though I try to say the “mythical grandparent who doesn’t understand technology”, but that is still ageist… Any recommendations?

    1. Terri

      I agree. Old-school sysadmins used to use “lusers” but obviously that’s not going to catch in in less BOFH-oriented environments. I tend to base it on context and since I work mostly in the web space, this ends up being things like “the average facebook user” or “web designers with artistic backgrounds” which while maybe gets the point across, is still kinda insulting to a whole crowd who may not deserve it.

      It’s interesting how many words that mean “lack of knowledge/experience” are kinda pejorative in English. e.g. here’s the list from thesaurus.com for “inexperienced

      amateur, callow, fresh, green*, ignorant, immature, inept, inexpert, innocent, kid*, naive, new, prentice, raw*, rookie, rude, sophomoric, spring chicken, tenderfoot, unaccustomed, unacquainted, unconversant, undisciplined, unfamiliar with, unfledged, unpracticed, unschooled, unseasoned, unsophisticated, untrained, untried, unused, unversed, unworldly, verdant, wet behind ears, young

      I guess “unacquainted” and its ilk are among the best ones.

      1. Andreas Fuchs

        Thinking about this a bit, in this ad I’d go with “a random stranger”. No matter what their background, they are very likely to be unacquainted with whatever it is you are doing. Even more so than anyone’s mother.

        Also, grmbl, ITA was a client of mine once. Their job site is a really pretty cool place for neat CS/math-related riddles, so it annoys me even more that they’re doing that “your mom” thing.

        1. antimony

          These are subway train ads — “the person sitting next to you” would be a perfect thing to use. The person sitting next to you is likely a random stranger, math skills unknown.

      2. spz

        how about “someone not interested in technology per se”?
        (s/technology/computers/ or whatever .. the problem often being that they just want to use the thing, not make it a research topic)

    2. John

      At one former employer, we used to use “someone with management potential”, but that was definitely perjorative.

      You could just say “non-technical person”.

      1. Terri

        In academia, we say that you want to write/present “for a general audience” and that you should minimize “jargon” (i.e. geek speak).

        It’s still much more compelling in a narrative style to have an actual singular person as your example than it is to describe a class of people, though. That’s why you get things like “your mom” or “joe random” or “privilege denying dude”

        1. John

          Or “You should write your PhD thesis down to the examiners’ level” i.e. for someone less specialized than yourself ;-)

  4. Jay Walker

    I found this blog post through a link from Blag Hag and it inspired my own blog post. I went a little bit more into detail about why ads like this are bad and what we can do about it. This includes sending a letter to ITA Software explaining why this ad perpetuates a negative stereotype about woman. I’ve included a Word doc that people can download, fill in their name and address, and send to ITA Software. You can find all that here: http://freethinkingfordummies.com/2011/02/26/little-assumptions/

    I’m really glad Jen linked here because I have just added another really cool blog to my RSS feed!

  5. lucidfox

    Looks like it could also use one of those Wikipedia-inspired stickers.

    “We’re hiring hackers with people skills. [citation needed]”

  6. Juliette

    My mum has a PhD in maths, and when somebody asks me how I’d explain my PhD thesis, also in maths, to my mum, as sometimes happens, I can never resist giving them a very technical explanation of what it is about!

  7. CrazyCatMadame

    Why reference a person at all?

    They could have said, “Can you explain in without using ‘geek speak’?”

    If using the words ‘geek speak’ make people uncomfortable (my IT co-workers and I use it all the time) then ‘Tech Talk’ could be substituted.

  8. Cara Kretz


    It’s clear from the numerous comments that our response to Tim didn’t go far enough. We really want everyone to know that we at ITA hear you and we get it. In our attempt to be clever, we missed the negative signal that our ad conveyed.

    We sincerely apologize for any role our ad may have had reinforcing negative stereotypes about women. That is the something we truly regret. ITA is proud of the diversity of our workforce, and we support many programs aimed at encouraging careers for women in science and technology. This is very important to us, and you have our commitment that we will not make this kind of mistake again.

    1. Annalee

      I totally missed this because the post fell off the front page. I really appreciate that you’ve taken these concerns to heart and you’re going to try to do better in the future. Thank you for recognizing your mistake.

Comments are closed.