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This #IWD2020… don’t drown in other people’s dirty laundry

All kinds of washing…

It’s International Women’s Day #IWD2020 and this year I am writing this post about washing.

What is this about? Women’s labour? Household chores? Automation of domestic labour?
No.
What I am thinking about is the concept of ‘openwashing’ and similar kinds of ‘washing’ and how to avoid drowning in that kind of dirty laundry.

I came across this first at the OER15 conference in Cardiff in a memorable keynote by Cable Green:

As an aside, OER15 was a vintage keynote year for the OER Conference in my view, featuring Josie Fraser, Martin Weller and Sheila MacNeill and the whole playlist is definitely worth another look. That said, I think you could safely say EVERY year of the OER Conference is a vintage keynote year (but you might expect me to say that as part of the organising team) and this year’s event, OER20, is promising to be a vintage programme year once again.

Back in 2015 meanwhile, Lorna Campbell wrote an often quoted blog post in which she wrote:

Cable also touched briefly on open washing, which Audrey Watters has defined as “having the appearance of open source and open licensing for marketing purposes while continuing proprietary practices.”
And he called Udacity out for openwashing with their Open Education Alliance, which despite the name, does not appear to be open in any sense of the word.

From: OER15 – Better late than never!, Open World, by Lorna Campbell

Since OER15 then I find it useful to use this concept of openwashing in other contexts as well, for example I come across of communitywashing and equalitywashing… and so forth.

I am in a position of privilege in many ways, in that I am a white European woman in a leadership position, I am well educated and I have the knowledge, skills and connections to navigate life to name some examples. Some of this privilege I was born into, some is due to luck and some I have worked hard to achieve. I also experience a lot of prejudice and discrimination and inequality as a woman working in a tech related field and in a myriad of other ways. Both have helped motivate me to actively try to see more of how others experience the world, and to do what is in my power to make a positive difference. Promoting gender equality is something I am passionate about, which is why I am an activist in networks that help this cause, such as the FemEdTech network.

Example of the work I do from 2019 (you can find the whole talk here)

This and other professional activities have attracted the attention of people who are keen to be perceived to care about things like openness, community and equality. People who organise events, publish content and generally broadcast messages that contain all the rights words and yet have no meaning because when we read them we know it’s nothing but washing. It’s reputation management at toxic levels. And so at this time of year, particularly around International Women’s Day, the invitations to contribute, to speak, to be interviewed and to participate increase in volume just as the desire to seem to be doing the ‘right’ thing becomes a more valuable commodity.

Every time I read yet another media release that starts with ‘by the community, for the community’ but which is actually written by the marketing or research department of a multi million pound business it makes me question what meaning community has in this context: do they actually mean customers, consumers, users, target audiences? It matters. It matters because of the intention behind the exercise differs and the outcome does as well. Like with openwashing proprietary practices usually continue to underlie all these ‘community activities’, they are just washed in words that imply engagement and shared ownership. Yet when the commercial interest or policy angle shifts, then those projects or networks are often shut down or dissolved into ‘self sustaining’ models that quickly end in the graveyard of moribund communities of practice which is full of ghosts of communities past.

Besides the obvious, this type of ‘washing’ has serious downsides in the long term: from the outside, to policy makers for example, sectors in which ‘community washing’ is prevalent appear to be functioning well, hence not in need of investment or intervention. Snap shots show only activity levels not their unsustainable and patchy nature. From the inside, particularly for newcomers, this kind of washing can be hard to detect and the alternatives harder to find. Again and again I come across new hubs or networks that duplicate what existing communities already do – but marketing ‘we are supporting something that is already there’ with its own identity and power, is far less effective at ‘washing’ those impact reports and social media channels, it can’t bathe them in a light of seemingly authentic engagement. Thus, I feel, much resources get wasted, wheels invented many times over in the name of communitywashing. It doesn’t help empower actual communities or build capacity or develop skills in ways that are sustainable and fit for purpose.

What all types of ‘washing’ have in common is that there is no real shift in the power base. Control remains with whoever has it rather than being distributed and shared. Gender equalitywashing provides some particularly infuriating examples, from equating balanced gender representation with having a token woman at a tech conference (‘there was A WOMAN on stage…’) to featuring appropriately photogenic stories front and centre without ever actually changing practice (…our organisation and its assets may be entirely dominated by men but we have stories about woman succeeding in the industry on the website).

From reports misrepresenting everyday sexism to glossing over structural pay and policy inequality, every single day brings examples of gender equalitywashing. There is so much evidence of inequality that is both persistent and pervasive that the kind of window dressing marketing that International Women’s Day seems to prompt each year seems laughable.

We know that we and YOU are not doing enough, not nearly enough, to redress the balance. Not anywhere. Not at any time. We are not closing gaps or nearly closing gaps. It may be more profitable to appear to address the issues in the workforce, company or industry, but only to a certain extent. Real change might disrupt profits and redistribute power.

This type of washing again gives the appearance of much positive activity or indeed activism without addressing the underlying inequalities effectively (and often without intending to do so at all). It creates a sense of futility, leads people to question why nothing is changing when we appear to do so much. And it does not support but often counteracts genuine efforts to affect change. Having a ‘women in X’ initiative does not equal ‘problem solved’.

I am well aware that there are many who don’t feel gender inequality continues to exist. Having won the right to vote and the existence of the Equal Pay Act has addressed any outstanding issues they argue. If this is your view, I am glad you are reading this blog post. You may wish to continue reading and books like Invisible Women or Inferior would make an excellent starting point.

I talk about inequality pretty much in every talk I give (there is a review of 2019 here) and there are always follow ups from people who don’t feel that in their lives, in their office, in their organisation this is an issue. Partly, I think, (wilful) ignorance is to blame (please refer to the reading suggestions above to become more informed).

But the kind of equalitywashing I am talking about is also to blame. It promotes a false sense of progress and change that does not prompt people to critically examine their own role and responsibility. In my view, we are all responsible both collectively and as individuals.

It is much harder, I find, to feel complacent when considering if there is anything more I could do to contribute, to make change happen – because there is always more to do. A lot more.

As the tide of misinformation gets whipped into a frenzy, the challenge to separate ‘washing’ from authentic voices can appear to become harder. But I find that most people do know. They can differentiate dishonesty from the real thing. What does become harder is to make your voice heard. Not to drown in other people’s dirty laundry.

And we do see those who engage in that kind of washing… those who use words like open and community and equality and try to divest them of their true meaning for their own convenience. The reality of open, the living of equality, the being part of a community is much more messy and nuanced, far less marketable than ‘washing’ requires it to be. It’s by no means all easy or good or uncontested. And yet, despite the messiness, the arguments and the disagreements, it is at least a reality beyond the imagination of corporations.

I want to note my thanks to all the people in my life who do what they can to make a difference. Who don’t engage in just applying a wash, a veneer of values but who live by them instead. Many of them identify as women, but many do not, and I am grateful for all of them, especially on International Women’s Day. I see you, I hear you, thank you.

A photo of old fashioned hairdresser chairs
Space for uncommon conversations

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