Go Back to the Kitchen

Robert Hoekman recent wrote a nasty little blog post called “That’s Enough, Whitney Hess.” And no, I’m not linking to it. It’s easy enough to find.

The general gist is that Whitney is getting more attention/press/visibility than she deserves. Who decides? Apparently, Hoekman does.

His diatribe is part of a typical pattern where successful women, especially successful young women, are demeaned, insulted, and generally harassed in an effort to reduce their influence and/or success.

You may recall that Kathy Sierra is, unfortunately, the poster child for these types of issues.

When young men overachieve, we celebrate them. In fact, the entire Silicon Valley myth is built on the idea of overachieving young men. When was the last time you heard someone say that Mark Zuckerberg really doesn’t deserve all the attention he’s getting and, anyway, there are much more talented people out there and he should just shut up and go away?

Laughable? Yes. But this is exactly what women face.

So, Whitney, I am sorry your success is drawing nasty personal attacks. Unfortunately, I am fairly certain that it won’t be the last time.

Now, to the “substance” of Mr. Hoekman’s argument, which is that some so-called thought leaders are getting more attention than they deserve because they are not very innovative or even very good at what they do.

The accuracy of his argument is irrelevant because influence is not something that industry leaders get to bestow or withhold. I can only assume that Hoekman thinks he’s better than Hess and should be getting more attention. With his article, he’s probably achieving the goal of “more attention,” but I suspect not in a way that he’s going to like.

The fact that Hess has been able to build a career and land a ton of speaking engagements speaks for itself. Instead of trying to silence her, Hoekman should probably see if he can figure out what she’s doing right and what he’s doing wrong.

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19 Responses to “Go Back to the Kitchen”

  1. Bill Swallow Says:

    There were many things I found troubling with Hoekman’s approach. The first is his denial that this was an attack on her or her character, even when pointed right back to his ‘tweet before the storm’: http://twitter.com/#!/rhjr/status/85755768372084736

    The second was using the very behavior he, in part, slammed her for using. Pot/kettle…

    There’s definitely some self-righteousness and self-entitlement going on here as well. Perhaps he’ll go down as the Tonya Harding of the UX world?

  2. Mark Coleran Says:

    Perhaps so much has been lost in this discussion but understandable, when much, wasn’t well said.

    I had the pleasure of the company of both Whitney and Robert at the Frontiers of Interaction Conference. Despite having met them, I can not say I ‘know’ them. However I like both of them and think they have much to say and listen too.

    From what I can gather, his article was inspired by Whitney’s post, ‘Your not a UX designer if…’ In context, Robert was speaking at the conference on challenging the way you think and approach design. Not to accept common assumptions and be bound by processes. Whitney’s article in contrast established some absolutes that although inspired by reality, implied that there is only one way of being and doing.

    I can understand the context and also see that the article did veer off and appear somewhat personal. It is great to have recognition and platform and that has to be used well. We can count on both hands(and toes), many people who do not do it well (male and female).

    It is a shame that it has devolved into such a discussion and in many ways on bad assumptions, It is hard to be absolutely clear in writing and it requires a subtlety that is easily lost.

    Many things could have been done better and do wish it had been more constructive. If someone has a platform and does screw-up, help them clarify and articulate better. Criticism should be on the merits of the argument, not the position and status. They are mostly side effects of circumstance.

    I really don’t think it was a matter of sexism, just a badly articulated position and argument, irrespective of merit.

    I can’t speak for either but like I said, both interesting people with lots to say but much lost in this discussion.

  3. Bikeboy389 Says:

    You’re upset about it, but you’re doing it.

    Unless you can make the case that there’s something about Hoekman or his criticism that’s sexist–beyond the fact that he’s male and Whitney’s female–you might be better served to back off the assertion that sexism is behind it.

    Your assertion is unsupported by your post, which makes it seem like you’re making it because you believe that all male/female interactions not to your liking are sexist, which sure sounds like prejudice to me.

    Sexism is a real problem in our society, but making unsupported allegations of sexist motivation is hardly going to help get rid of it.

    I believe that Hoekman should probably have just kept his metaphorical mouth shut. He hasn’t helped anybody. I initially supported him because in some ways he gave voice to some issues I was seeing myself. But really, his complaint doesn’t rise to the level where morals or ethics should have compelled him to speak out–it was more like calling someone out for 11 items in the 10-items-or-less line at the supermarket.

  4. S Says:

    I didn’t like – or agree with – his blog post. However, I didn’t read sexism in it.

    But I do see it in yours.

    I see *you* introducing the pejorative terms. I see *you* introducing phrases like “go back to the kitchen”.

    And comparing Whitney to Kathy Sierra’s situation? An insult to Kathy, and a belittlement of what happened to her. Kathy would have taken this in her stride and replied point-by-point. Graceless as it may have been, this was a completely up-front criticism with full attribution and he stood behind it. And you compare it to an anonymous attacker with a photoshopped hangman’s noose.

    And I love your whole “his argument is irrelevant” stance.

    On the contrary, it’s the only thing that *is* relevant.

    The only alternative is “You’re not allowed to criticize a woman, because she’s a woman.”


  5. Robert Hoekman, Jr Says:

    1. If you’re going to accuse someone of sexism, by all means, roll out the evidence cart. Let’s see it. I’m very interested to see if you can find any.

    I have never done or said or even thought such a thing in my lifetime, let alone my career. Make your case.

    2. I’m curious about the “typical pattern” you mentioned. What are some examples, other than Kathy Sierra, of women in the web industry getting shot down strictly because of their gender? And does it really occur frequently enough that it’s typical?

    I ask because I have seen much the opposite. In this, what used to be a much more male-dominated industry, I see more women attending and speaking at conferences all the time, and I applaud the fact that things have started to balance out.

    • Sarah Says:

      The pattern is that women get called out in nasty, personal ways and men don’t.

      The Kathy Sierra example is definitely extreme, but I used it because it’s in Wikipedia and thus about as public as it could possibly be. It’s easy to find additional examples and supporting research by Googling terms like “sexism in tech industry.”

      I take your word for it that you’re not sexist. In that case, I challenge you to make your argument about thought leaders without resorting to a personal attack that contributes, even if unintentionally, to a general climate that is hostile to high-achieving women, especially young women. Think about the *next* up-and-coming young woman. Will reading your post make her think twice about choosing this career, working with mentors, or agreeing to speaking engagements?

  6. Robert Hoekman, Jr Says:

    I wasn’t being hostile to a woman. I was calling out a so-called community leader with undue influence.

    And judging by the numerous positive responses to it that counter the negative, I think my point more than came through in the post.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. phil Says:

    I think that it’s shame that the subject of the blog was a female as it essentially dominates what the post was driving at. I have to honest and didn’t read it as sexist, although there seemed to be an element of “why has this person got to this level so quickly when it took me so long?”. I think the point was that some people who speak at conferences (regardless of gender) tend to be there because of who they know and not what they know.

    I myself have attended a few where speakers have delivered a talk to a room full of professionals, which pretty much amounted to teaching your Gran to suck eggs.

    I have seen you deliver two talks at such conferences which I found both informative and extremely beneficial. I think the problem arises when practitioners become industry celebrities and seem to appear on the conference circuit more for who they are rather than what they have to say that is new.

    I think that it was extremely brave to post such a thing, but whoever the subject, these things need to be said. It’s just unfortunate that the blog appeared to be bitter. There were some valid points and they were generally well made. Unfortunately the tone of the post clouded the points it was trying to make.

    The industry needs discussions such as this, as long as it doesn’t become detrimental to people’s careers as practitioners.

  8. Kathy Sierra Says:

    For my own opinion on this, Mr. Hoekman’s bitterness toward Whitney seems more about “the Koolaid point” than sexism. When person A (in this case Whitney) appears to have developed a sufficient number of people listening, then there is always a person B who feels compelled to “save” others from drinking person A’s koolaid. It’s jealousy combined with lack of self-awareness. Bad combo.

    I don’t believe what happened to *me* was about sexism either, though sexist behaviors came into play. But in my case, and Whitney’s as well… I feel it is far more about the anger and frustration those felt by those who believe someone else is getting undeserved attention. Then it becomes like a “mission” to try to convince others they’re wrong/stupid/sheep for listening to this person, while also hoping to discourage the person from speaking and writing. In my case, mission accomplished. I have a feeling Whitney has more internal strength than I have… she’s a New Yorker 😉

    The truly astonishing thing for me when I see this (classic) pattern is how willing someone like Mr. Hoekman is to insult such a wide swath of his profession. To suggest that all those who have found value in the work of Whitney to be koolaid-drinking sheep, wow. Jealousy fuels a lot of irrational responses on the web, that’s for sure.

    Agree or disagree with Whitney’s work, anyone who is out there contributing to their profession deserves far more thoughtful criticism than what Mr. Hoekman provided. That he continues to justify his responses or sees himself as having “spoken truth to power” is just one more example of this classic pattern. He is on a mission, and I have no doubt he believes he is serving a valuable purpose. That is always far easier than deep introspection.

  9. Sarah Says:

    What strikes me as sexist is that Hoekman’s thesis is that Hess is getting attention she doesn’t deserve, and needs to be taught a lesson in humility. The “She thinks she’s so special” school of criticism is often used as a way to tear down successful women, particularly if they are young, attractive, and confident–and it’s usually sexist. We are still socialized to believe that it’s ok for a man to be bold, confident, even cocky, but a woman who thinks she deserves attention and credit is out of control and needs to be taken down a peg or two.

    Hoekman can disagree, and maybe he’s right: maybe this is truly an equal opportunity personal attack, and he would have written the same thing if Whitney were a Walter, but it is nevertheless a personal attack. One does not say, “stay off my stage. Stop abusing my profession. Stop talking to my audience. Go home” in order to express a professional, expert opinion. One does not pepper a professional, expert opinion with petty jabs (“Incidentally, she did not apologize for blowing the clock”) and vague criticism (a snide, paragraphs-long summary of a single speaking engagement).

    A professional, expert opinion looks like this: “She believes, X, Y, and Z to be the most valuable tools in our field. I disagree: X has been debunked by [citation], Y is only moderately useful as evidenced by [citation], and Z is outdated with the advent of [citation]. I believe A, B, and C to be the most valuable tools in our field. A is…”

  10. Robert Hoekman, Jr Says:

    “What strikes me as sexist is that Hoekman’s thesis is that Hess is getting attention she doesn’t deserve, and needs to be taught a lesson in humility.”

    This was not my thesis, nor do I believe it. Whitney is incredibly humble, and you’d likely be hard-pressed to find someone willing to argue against that fact.

    And once again, my intent was not to deliver constructive criticism. I am not extending a professional courtesy to Whitney. I am telling the community that I, as a UX professional, think she is unqualified for the wild degree of influence she currently wields, and why.

  11. Robert Hoekman, Jr Says:


    The jealousy perspective has been asked and answered: http://rhjr.tumblr.com/post/7049707964/on-sexism-bullying-and-other-bullshit

    Plenty of people deserve their audience. They earn it, and they work to keep it. I am proud that I earned mine. I do not wish to be handed one larger than what I earn.

    Thanks for your thoughts. I have long respected you and your writings. *You* are a community leader.

  12. Kathy Sierra Says:

    Sarah, I understand what you’re saying, but I just do not agree that it is an example of sexism. Robert Scoble, for example, gets the same kind of responses. And though I cannot know for certain, it does not *feel* to me like it is about teaching her a lesson. I think he is sincere in his frustration… he believes his profession needs *saving* from Whitney.

    That I believe he handled it horribly is a different problem, but I still haven’t seen anything he did or said that seems sexist.

    I do not believe he was being a bully, either. But he did make this personal and did nothing to conceal his contempt. And sadly, he has now forced people who like/respect both of them to choose sides, even if they never speak of it. He may actually have sparked some important and needed discussions, but what a crappy, selfish way to do it.

    I do not know Whitney though I have met her at a couple of conferences. But the way she is handling this has certainly taken her up many notches in my view.

  13. Sarah Says:

    “I am telling the community that I, as a UX professional, think she is unqualified for the wild degree of influence she currently wields, and why.”

    So why make it a condescending, personal attack? Why frame it in terms of vague reasons she should shut up? Some people do the things she says not to do and are successful anyways, and also I don’t like her speeches–is a pretty vague argument. Why not say, “Here is what we should be doing as a field: [specifics]. Whitney does something else, [specifics] and it doesn’t work for the following reasons: [citation]”?

    If the attention she receives were truly undeserved, surely you could cite actual examples other than taking credit for influence you don’t believe she had and giving a speech you didn’t like. You could say–and be perfectly civil and respectful and not at all sexist–that she promotes some particular rule, and give an example of people who broke that rule and were successful because they broke it. But you didn’t. You stayed vague, condescending, and personal and that’s why you came across as sexist.

    A condescending, personal attack, lacking evidence or support, that culminates in “stay off my stage,” aimed a successful female professional by a male peer will seem sexist, even if the man didn’t compose that attack while thinking to himself, “I hate women.”

  14. Robert Hoekman, Jr Says:

    Sarah, I appreciate your defense. Really. But please read what’s actually on the page. Please focus on the points that really exist rather than those you’re reading into it.

    My post contained three examples: One about design (the Amex app), one about her beliefs as a practitioner (her blog post, which is a direct expression of her view on how UX should, no *must*, be done), and finally one about her presentation (during which she talked mostly about herself and delivered nothing of practical value to the audience).

    A former coworker wrote me yesterday so say I was one of the least sexist people she’s ever had the privilege to work with (her words, not mine). Please give up this argument. There’s nothing there.

    I’m happy to continue debating the points of my argument. This is simply not one of them.

  15. Robert Hoekman, Jr Says:

    Incidentally, I have written four books, dozens of articles, and spoken at conferences for years now to make my case for what we should be doing as design professionals. I have more than earned those stripes. It took 3k words just to say what I needed to say about this matter. Any more and it would have gone unread.

  16. Sarah Says:

    I have read what’s on the page, and what could have been a concise, respectful assertion that Whitney Hess has the wrong priorities or the wrong ideas or whatever you’d like got muddled into a petty, vague personal attack. I’m not saying you are a sexist person. I’m saying that your blog post could be read as sexist, or at best a non-sexist but still petty, disrespectful personal attack.

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    Go Back to the Kitchen | Tempered Ganache

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