Thursday, October 27, 2011

Even your mom can write this blog post

For those of you who subscribe to IEEE Spectrum email alerts, you may have seen today's snafu where there was an oopsie headline for one of their articles - "With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program."

The article and headline were quickly revised post-publication, though I noticed in google's cache that the original article contained the following quote, "'Now, even my mom can program,' Banzi says."

The editor of the journal, who is a female engineer, was Not Amused, nor were the dozens of commenters on the article. I'm glad they fixed it.

But I think this journalistic error raises a larger societal issue when discussing ability and technology. We seem to more quickly ascribe technological inability to female elders, and technological ability to male youths.

For example, I tend to hear, "Even my grandma could use it." far more often than, "Even my grandpa could use it". And I recently saw a comic in a magazine where mother calls technical support and says, "Normally my toddler son would help me fix the computer, but he's in time out." Why wasn't that a female toddler in the cartoon?  Why in movies is the clever geek / scientist who saves the day always a man?

I really would like the media to make greater strides in not playing to tropes, because it tends to reinforce these tired ideas that women are unable to be technologically savvy.


  1. Yeah, I got that email.
    I just don't get how the (female) editor missed that before publication though, isn't she supposed to OK everything before it comes out?

  2. My mother can totally out program me in anything but maybe MATLAB... Glad the snafu was fixed promptly, but seriously?

  3. When I was defending my thesis, one of the committee members asked me to "explain your work in a way that your grandmother would understand". The question made me really mad and I could not quite tell why it made me so angry until reading your post today. I am normally not a rebellious person, but in the heat of the moment I told him "I am sorry, I cannot do it, my grandmother is dead" (at that time, unfortunately, none of my grandparents were alive anymore). Anyway, after that nobody dared to ask me any more questions...

  4. FOr years I have been saying "so easy a salesperson can use it." Occasionally "so easy a manager can use it." It never occured to me to ascribe less technical ability to women. Perhaps because there were plenty of them when I took CS and that my wife was a professional programmer for several years.

  5. There may be a generation gap lurking. The parents of Boomers and early GenX grew up in an environment where women were acculturated to avoid "technical" things. "Technical" does not mean complicated or detail-oriented, it means some weird pre-feminism concept I don't really get. So it actually can mean something other than "even older female people can do this"; it means it's designed to be accessible even to people trained in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to avoid certain subject areas.

    Or who knows. But I think there may be an interesting cultural shift manifest in how Clueless-Outside-His-Field Dad isn't the one in the headline. Not that I wouldn't fix the headline if I was editing the article.

  6. Let's try that a different way: "Math Is Hard" Barbie is still bitter black humor, but even people old enough to remember it first-hand may not understand how much culture had changed from their parents' generation. Would we even remember that voicebox had it been decades earlier? Gender stereotypes for ability and aptitude suck but they do suck somewhat less passing through the last 50 years.

  7. I was talking with a 62 year-old male colleague about web-design as a career choice this week; he said it is becoming so user friendly even he can do it. I’ve never thought about technology in terms of males having more ability than females. I attribute that to working with a group of incredibly smart women at an engineering firm in the 90’s. I do, however, think it is important to continue to call out those who continue to promote stereotypes. We still have a ways to go to change society’s view of our abilities.

  8. In British Columbia UVic female enrollment in Computing Science dropped from about 1 in 3 to 1 in 10, literaly from 1 September to the next in the mid 1980s.

    That coincided with the arrival at University and College of the first kindergarten to grade 12 victims of an experimental new math curriculum which replaced the 1960s "new math" during the 1970s.

    Profs at University noted an overall decline in enrolment in math, statistics, and related disciplines such as C Sc, Physics, and chemistry which require an ability to apply pre-university math and to learn post secondary math.

    My daughter got a gold medal in the regional Gauss Math competition twice, in grade 6 and 7, despite a having a phys ed major for her math teacher. He got upset when she kept correcting him in class. In grade 7 she tied with a private school student. His school took out newspaper ads describing the star of their math team as having achieved "the top individual mark" in the regional Gauss competition that year.

    The Gauss Math study group was led by a different math teacher, supplemented by work at home problem solution my wife and I helded our daughter work through.

    In high school she volunteered as a Peer Tutor in math. She observed students from classes taught by a particular teacher present themselves and all repeating the same broken algorithms for tying to solve certain classes of problems. When the asked to see the notes they were using as a guide she noted that they all had the same wrong examples and discussion. They had all been alert in class, taken accurate notes, and had recorded nonsense the teacher had been passing off as math instruction. Scary, isn't that?

    Monday before the IEEE fiasco she sent a picture from her grad lab at MIT/WHOI, showing a mass spectroscope, with connected laptop, which she had just programmed to detect and report relative abundances of a different range of charge/mass ratios.

  9. Hmm. I see it more as a manifestation of ageism than of sexism. It's probably a little of both, but by and large anyone over the age of 55 or 60 gets this kind of flak all the time.

  10. I heard "explain your work in a way that your grandmother would understand" or some variant at least annually in grad school (i.e., 3-7 years ago), and it never ceased to anger me. The most otherwise progressive people would spit that out. I think it's ageist more than sexist (though the "mom" headline seems more sexist). It reminds me of those sad experiments that show how easily older people can be primed to underperform on tests if exposed to references (e.g., the word "slow") to what "old age" is supposed to look like. I'm trying my hardest to convey to my parents and grandmother that being tech-savvy is mostly about Googling error messages, experimenting (repeating the previous two steps many times), and trying to stay generally aware of new developments. The biggest obstacle to learning for many of us, including me, are these insidious beliefs that somehow we're intrinsically disadvantaged compared to others... or maybe so far behind that we can't catch up. I'm so lucky that research forces me to fight that every freaking day.

  11. Was appalled to hear Daniel Borel, president and cofounder of Logitech, use several times this lovely image to describe the firm's Harmony remote: Even my mother can use it, Even my wife can use it. Wonderful appreciation of one's kins.
    And pretty wrong too 'cos anyone who's watched spouses, friends or parents struggle with computers and remotes will know that impatience or hopelessness with objects is pretty evenly distributed.

  12. For many years, the trend of perceiving female elders as who can do nothing related to technology has gained its root. This ought to be reversed... Gender equality is something to be considered. I guess that what men can do women can do better. All fields were meant for any gender!

  13. OMG ppl... I'm a 40+ y.o. father and non-technically challenged (nor mentally-txt enabled). But my mother (nor father) can program the VCR (and yes they have not hit the digital age yet). Truth be it, most older people are technically challenged. It merely a factor of what was available at the time. I agree with Funny about Money, its about age not sex. An unfortunate state of affairs is that humor IS about the misfortunes of someone. I'm personally offended (and said so in a letter to Susan Hassler) that she expects science to be so sterile that members cannot have a little fun occasionally. If the world wants more people, male and female, to engage in STEM, the leaders in those fields need to be more in tune with the diversity and humanity of their audience and people in general need to get some thicker hides.