Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip Cookie (by terriko)

Cookie of the week*: the IEEE knows how to apologize

Cookie of the Week* is an occasional series highlighting action in the geek community to fight sexism, in order to show that fighting sexism is possible and happening.

This week’s winner is the IEEE, for their excellent apology after an editorial gaffe. Within hours of getting the notice that a dubiously-named article had gone up on the IEEE Spectrum site, subscribers received the following email from editor in chief Susan Hassler:

Please accept our sincere apologies for the headline in today’s Tech Alert: “With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program.” The actual title of the article is “The Making of Arduino.”

I’m an IEEE member, and a mom, and the headline was inexcusable, a lazy, sexist cliché that should have never seen the light of day. Today we are instituting an additional headline review process that will apply to all future Tech Alerts so that such insipid and offensive headlines never find their way into your in-box.

Spectrum’s insistence on editorial excellence applies to all its products, including e-mail alerts. Thank you for bringing this error to our attention. If you have any additional comments or recommendations, do not hesitate to contact me or other members of the editorial staff.

Apologies are surprisingly difficult for people to get right. We suggest three properties for a good apology:

  • Recognise that someone was hurt, and in what particular way they were hurt
  • Accept responsibility for it, whether intended or not
  • Promise to avoid doing it again, or at least to work on it

And the IEEE not only did all of these perfectly, they also responded quickly, clearly, and with a defined plan to avoid mistakes in the future. We all make mistakes, but we can aspire to handle them as gracefully as the IEEE has this week.

So, here’s that cookie:

Does anyone else have any cookies to spare this week?

* Disclaimer: cookies may not be baked weekly! This offer does not commit Geek Feminism, its bloggers, affiliates, sponsors, commenters or fans to a posting schedule.

10 thoughts on “Cookie of the week*: the IEEE knows how to apologize

  1. Elizabeth G.

    I wish they talked a little bit about why this happened. The way the said it made me think, “well the automatic article title machine was using some old, outdated, sexist cliche code but we have now downloaded the fix and will be sure to upgrade in the future, so problem solved!”. When, I suspect that there was a person who wrote the title, who didn’t even consider that women would be reading it.

    1. Terri

      I didn’t read it that way at all: I read it as the the editor in chief saying that even if the writer screwed up with the headline, her editorial staff shouldn’t have let it through. That’s a pretty darned human response.

      1. Elizabeth G.

        They didn’t make a point of saying that this was the work of an actual individual making a sexist remark. I do applaud that they are adding to the review process to prevent this but the issue is not that the review process failed but that their are people in content creating rolls at IEEE who thinks that mom’s are —-. [mod note: slur removed] I am not saying that they needed to crucify the individual but I would have liked to see a little bit of discussion about why this happened, not just how we are going to keep it from happening again.

        1. Terri

          I personally would have found yet another drawn-out discussion about what happened less satisfying than the simple statement that it was a sexist cliche that was a mistake. I found it incredibly refreshing to have that just stated as fact rather than as something that needed explanation, motivation, discussion and historical context.

          However, that might be because I get stuck in these darned discussions inordinately often thanks to being an author here, so to each her own!

          For those not burned out on this sort of thing who might want to see more discussion about what makes this sort of thing happen and so on, I suggest taking a look at the So Simple, your mother could do it page on the GF wiki for more links.

        2. Elizabeth G.

          Even though the apology was to the people who were offended (so know why this was a crap mistake) part of a public apology, as apposed to sending an apology to only the people who complain, is to explain to people who weren’t necessarily offended why it was offensive. I like the apology but I would have liked it to been a chance for IEEE to make a statement about what kind of organization it is.

        3. Terri

          You don’t think “the headline was inexcusable, a lazy, sexist cliché that should have never seen the light of day” was clear enough about why the headline was offensive?

          Also, in case there is any confusion, I want to reiterate that this was sent to ALL subscribers, not just those who complained. I received my copy as an IEEE member who hadn’t yet noticed the original article. I suspect there’s no giant “we screwed up” banner on their website, but this was not a particularly private apology.

    2. C

      I have to say I agree that it would have felt more satisfying and complete to add something about how it happened in the first place. I’m not talking about a discussion about how sexist attitudes lead to situations like this in general, that would be fairly obvious for anyone even remotely familiar with feminism. I, and I think Elizabeth too, are talking about this specific situation. Have they found the individual who wrote it in the first place? Have they had a discussion with them about why it was wrong? Improving the editorial process and taking responsibility for it as a whole organisation is brilliant, but I also think it would be reassuring to know that the person who originally had the sexist attitude that caused this whole thing has been talked to about it, rather than just compensated for with some more editing.

      1. Catherine

        I think it’s probably better this way because publicly placing the blame on one employee, even an unnamed one, could easily be construed as sidestepping organizational responsibility. And if management is competent at all, they are not going to place public blame on their own shoulders without taking internal measures to keep themselves from having to do so again. I’m not sure what’s really to be gained by pushing the shaming down the hierarchy here. I *want* the responsibility at the highest level–that’s where the most power to fix it is. That’s who’s going to adjust not only the editorial outlook of this headline writer, but of *all* the writers within the organization, whether they happened to be the one who screwed up this time or only just had that potential.

  2. jlstrecker

    Yay! Thanks for sharing. I’m very happy to see this — it’s a huge improvement over IEEE Spectrum’s reaction in 2007 to a reader who felt that a remark about X-ray glasses letting you see through clothing was sexist. The executive editor proved your point that apologies are hard to get right:

    “I regret the distress caused to reader Soukup. But her apparent assumption that a Y chromosome is necessary to be amused by the ability to see through clothing strikes me as, well, biased. Moreover, it may have escaped Soukup’s attention that one of the authors of the article, Zoi-Heleni Michalopoulou, is a woman.”

  3. Briten

    I get IEEE’s letters, and I was tempted to send a letter of complaint for this one, but the retraction was so fast that I saw no reason to. I have to agree with Terri’s appraisal of the retraction.

    If you see any need for blame then surely it can be safely placed on the editor in chief in the first place. Doesn’t the buck stop there?

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