IS TEDWomen Sexist? Use the “Group Replacement Test” and tell us what you think

by cv harquail on August 2, 2010

Everyone who’s ever asked the question:

“Is this Racist?” “Is this Sexist?” “Is this Anti-Semitic?” “Is this Homophobic” or the plain vanilla “Is this Offensive?”

has tried the Group Replacement Test.

The Group Replacement Test

With the Group Replacement Test, you take out the name/noun of the group you’re wondering about, and you replace it with a noun related to another marginalized group. So, you replace Women with Blacks, Jews with Gays, or Blacks with Jews, and see how the language flows.

The Group Replacement Test helps you assess a text and arguments for bias– often, what doesn’t bug us when talking about “the poor” bugs us when we think about “the Differently-Abled”, and doing the Group Replacement Test lets us get past our own superficial acceptance of an argument.

On the downside, the Group Replacement Test can compare a putatively small-ish concern to a more global one, and risk offending people. For example, some folks got offended when bloggers used the Group Replacement Test to evaluate the sexism in MAC Cosmetics Juarez makeup collection: instead of “Juarez” would MAC have felt it okay to use “Dachau”? Or “slave” instead of “sleepwalker”?

And, obviously, the methods, explanations and outcomes of the oppression of one group don’t translate exactly to those of another group– Homophobia and Anti-Semitism aren’t the same, although they are related in ways that each can illuminate the other. It’s incendiary, to be sure, but it’s also provocative.

Try the Group Replacement Test

Test it on this short bit of text, the announcement for TEDWomen:

Over the last several years, our ideas about women Gays have changed. Investing in women and girls Gays was once seen as a radical notion today, its value is clear…. To track this emerging story, the first-ever TEDWomen TEDGay will explore in depth: Who are the women Gays who leading change? What ideas are they Gays championing? How are  they Gays shaping the future? TEDWomen TEDGay will also reveal how women Gays and men, in concert with one another, orchestrate different but complementary approaches to ideas worth spreading.

Does that make you wonder about the overall understanding of a separate, niche TED conference?

The Group Replacement Test and TEDWomen

Now try the Group Replacement Test with a bigger sample of text: the recent conversation between Huffington Post’s. Tech Edior, Bianca Bosker, and PM from the Paley Center/TED: Why TEDWomen: A Q&A Consider how this text/conversation reads if we replace the name of original group “Women” with the name of a similarly marginalized group “Blacks” …. as you read this, ask yourself the question:

Do these comments really sound politically enlightened?

Huffington Post: Why has TED, in conjunction with the Paley Center, decided to launch TEDBlack?

PM: Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, and I have been talking for several years about a TED conference that would focus on Blacks and we agreed that the time was right to capture an evolving narrative about Blacks in the unique way that the TED format offers. I really admired how they produced two specialized events — TEDIndia in 2009 and TEDGlobal in Africa (2007) — and believed that a similar opportunity had emerged to turn the TED lens on the stories of Blacks as architects of change around the world and across all sectors, to focus on how their ideas and innovations were shaping and reshaping the future. At The Paley Center for Media, through our programs on the role of media, we witnessed the growing interest in the ways that Blacks work, think, learn and lead and the impact of their ideas across the globe and across the media landscape as well as all other sectors of life and work. We agreed that the two institutions together had an opportunity to produce a conference with significance.

HP: Why now?

PM: In my opinion, there’s never been a better time. Investing in Blacks may once have been considered a radical notion or even a waste of resources, but in most places in the world today, Blacks are increasingly recognized as a critical link to greater prosperity, political stability, better health and public policy. In the West, of course, generations of educated, empowered Blacks are moving into leadership across all sectors and the impact is measurable. It’s an important moment in the evolution of the story of how Blacks, in new, and sometimes, old ways are the architects of change across sectors and countries.

HP: Why not TEDWhite?

PM: It’s an irresistible question, isn’t it? But embedded in that question is a dangerous assumption: People tend to assume that the balance between the races is a zero-sum game, that when Blacks win, Whites lose. But it’s simply not true. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: When Blacks win, we all win. This is one of the key reasons that Blacks are such effective change agents.

HP: One online commenter wondered whether TEDBlack was in danger of blurring the lines between “idea sharing” (TED defines its mission as “ideas worth spreading”) and cause advocacy. What do you think?

PM: It sounds like this online commentator reacted to the name without reading about the event! TEDBlack isn’t championing a cause; it’s surfacing and sharing some of the most important ideas of our time. Our focus is on Black as change agents, innovators and idea champions, and I think people will be both inspired and surprised by the program. We’re exploring some fascinating territory! For example, there’s been a flood of data in recent years showing how investment in Blacks in developing nations leads to economic growth, public health improvement, political stability… Why is that? How does it work? What ideas are these Blacks championing? These are profound questions that matter to all of us.

HP: What is the mission of the conference?

PM: Now, I attend many Black’s conferences — in fact, I went to six on four different continents in one month last year. The increasing numbers of these forums all over the world indicates to me a new awareness of the roles Blacks are playing in bringing new ideas and innovations to their communities and countries. These forums are also ways to discuss the challenges that remain for Black to achieve their fullest potential.

TEDBlack will focus on the ideas and innovations championed by Blacks. These cover everything from community development to economic growth to biodynamic farming to robotics to medical treatments to the use of technology for personal safety and peace making. White and Black speakers will take the TEDBlack stage with ideas that are reshaping our future, and matter deeply to all of us.

HP: Some have wondered why TED is launching a distinct TEDBlack event, instead of focusing on increasing the number of Black speakers at its existing conferences. What’s your take on why TEDBlack is necessary? Are there plans to increase the number of Black speakers at other TED conferences? If so, how?

PM: Thank you for asking that question! There are a few assumptions there, which we’d like to address head-on. First, the intent behind the conference is to explore in depth a subject we find fascinating and timely. We’re seeking out talks about Blacks (not just by Blacks). As with every TED, the speaker program will include Whites and Black. And of course, TED will continue to invite extraordinary Black to speak at all of their events.

It’s important to understand that TED didn’t launch TEDBlack to segregate Black attendees or speakers outside the main conference, nor as an alternative to putting forward a balanced speaker program at other events. As my TED colleague has pointed out, this was already a priority for TED. The launch of TEDBlack marks an enthusiastic “yes/and,” not an “either/or.”

… I know that TED is striving for a balanced program in all their conferences, and will continue to do so.

To be sure…

Obviously, this Group Replacement Test isn’t perfect.  But,  doesn’t a statement like “When Blacks win, we all win. This is one of the key reasons that Blacks are such effective change agents” make you cringe?

Of course, if you want to consider whether an organization is sexist, a better and more comprehensive way to begin your analysis would be to use the Six Degrees of Sexism test…  However, the Group Replacement Test really gets the conversation going, don’t you think?


Reshaping the future

See Also: Is The Daily Show Sexist? Use the 6 Degrees of Sexism Test to judge for yourself
Only A Cosmetic Apology? MAC’s Juarez Controversy & Fauxial Awareness


jamie showkeir August 3, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Once again you make the point well, authentically and without rancor. Thank you.

patrickdh August 4, 2010 at 6:04 am

I don’t think the event in itself is sexist and probably it’s a good theme to give exclusive voice to women within the context of TED. But from the perspective of brand architecture and concept – TEDWomen is an error. Reminds me of the EasyJet strategy, slap-on a descriptor and off you go to conquer a new category. Slapping on the ‘woman’ descriptor to TED is quite poor exercise of judgment – at the level where TED sits. This leads me to think that TEDWomen may be more that just one event and perhaps remain as a permanent brand extension, and this is where I coincide with your judgment. No extensions please.

Patrick Singleton August 4, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I enjoy many of the lectures and I am frequently bowled over by the speakers’ achievement and insight. Still, I’d rather TED’s world view were different.

My sense of TED, which I get entirely from watching web videos occasionally, is that the atmosphere at a TED event is thoroughly exceptionalist. TED attendees are regarded as a distinct and unique group. It’s pro forma for speakers to apologize for not being nearly as clever as the cavalcade of geniuses also in attendance — with the combined effect of cementing each others’ bona fides. It’s also consistently established that each speaker is an outsider — somewhat eccentric and much more clever than the average worker in her field, even if the field being tilled is particle physics. And TED goes for rare — the deaf percussionist, the blind social anthropologist, the economist whose metier is animated bubble charts (I assume that’s uncommon). The cumulative message is that TEDs are different from you and me, and better.

So of course TED regards any group as the other. The “we” at a TED conference refers to members of the TED club. When a TED speaker reports on an innovation for social good, it’s an intervention by an expert, rather than an organic change in a social system.

The only problem with the Group Replacement Test is that TED actually does regard every group in a bemused, patronizing, detached way. A bit like National Geographic. I think it was in my lifetime that the magazine started doing features on areas in the United States, and the writers shocked this midwestern boy by writing about Illinoisans with the same wide-eyed dismissiveness they brought to Hmong and Kenyans.

TED is about heroes, and regards the hoi polloi from a distance.

cv harquail August 11, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Hi Patrick, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.
I think you’re on to something with the reminder that TED really seems to groove on ’emotionalism’ and elitism… I imagine that this sense of elitism just rubs extra salt in the wound of ‘not good enough for regular TED’. Also, there’s a way that the exceptionalism/elitism/dismissiveness contradicts feminist values of inclusiveness. TED could still gather up the some great ideas, but with a different attitude that is less dismissive of other great ideas. cv

Lisa Gates August 5, 2010 at 1:03 am

CV… when I read your playback with BLACKS, I suddenly saw the “profiling” we’re doing automatically. We are the monster that’s been created via marketing and branding where we see everything as a commodity to to be capitalized.

So I think we are witnessing our own evolution from oppressed to free. From marginalized to empowered. We [apparently] need to travel through a reclaiming stage in which we assert our belonging. We then [hopefully?] trade reclaiming for a claiming stage where we include ourselves where ever we wish to participate.

We belong where ever we say so. We are transforming TED as we write. TED is speaking to the hoi polloi until we claim something different.

msksboyd August 19, 2010 at 8:06 am

CV, saw your comment on Reuters and started rolling through your blog, your site and if I don’t stop…well, I will miss my meeting. Thanks for this work.

I got involved in the conversation some weeks ago about the XXC that Tereza describes and intend to work with her as the framework evolves. This post and Lisa’s comments are so right on. When will we stop asking permission to care about ourselves as a segment of society? I don’t know much about TEDwomen, but like Patrick, have enjoyed some TED lectures. I am not in that circle, however it does occur to me that nobody gets bugged when businesses say “our target market is women” to sell something. Why can’t we focus on women based solutions the way we focus on women and gender studies, women’s health, etc. Of course we can…and we shall!

I look forward to learning more about you, what you do and how that will help as we create the model for empowering women in business….be it growth or lifestyle.

anon January 5, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I think TEDwomen is totally sexist. Why highlight you have to have a women only event? I thought TED was more intelligent and thoughtful than singling out women. It should be about IDEAS, not sex, sexual orientation, colour of the skin, etc.. It really riles me having to have these ‘segregations’ that divide people up.

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