Grandmothers who are brilliant at technology

A wonderful site called "Grandma Got STEM" profiles grandmothers who have accomplished marvellous feats of technology, and aims to drive a stake through the heart of stupid, thoughtless phrases like "How would you explain that to your grandmother?" or "So simple my grandma could do it."

Shown above, Helen Quinn, "particle physicist, PhD from Stanford in 1967, and grandmother of three young girls."

I've never understood why geeks hold their grandmothers in such contempt.

Perhaps you are tired of hearing people say 'how would you explain that to your grandmother?' when they probably mean something like 'How would you explain the idea in a clear, compelling way so that people without a technical background can understand you?'

Here's a similar saying you may have heard: 'That's so easy, my grandmother could understand it.'

Grandma got STEM counters the implication that grannies (gender + maternity + age) might not easily pick up on technical/theoretical ideas by sharing pictures and remembrances from/of Grandmothers who have made contributions in STEM-related fields.

Grandma Got STEM


  1. I’ve never understood why geeks hold their grandmothers in such contempt.

    Woah, where the heck did that statement come from?  

    I’m a geek, and my grandmother had a 3d grade education and was a cook in logging camps.  She raised 4 sons, one died in WW2 and the other three all went on to go to college and become successful teachers.  

    So hold my grandmother in contempt?  Hardly. She’s what made me what I am from that humble beginning.

      1. There is no next sentence. There’s a blockquote from the article which mentions “the implication that grannies (gender + maternity + age) might not easily pick up on technical/theoretical ideas” but says nothing about contempt.

        1. The next sentence which happens to be in a blockquote is still the next sentence. It references the “so easy even your grandmother can use it” (or mother) type of line which lies in the same family as the Eric Raymond/Aunt Tilly bit referenced in a comment below.  I think it is contemptuous; try substituting your favorite minority group for grannies and see how it looks.

    1. …Because naturally, everything anyone ever says on the Internet is about you, personally. /sarcasm

      1. Sorry you thought I meant it that way – not what I meant.  I just found it an odd, overly “blanket” statement.  I offer my own grandmother as an example of someone this geek happens to respect.

        1. Hey, it’s no skin off my back if some random dude says something thoughtless on the internet.

          Also, it is an odd statement, but the meaning is pretty clear for anyone who actually is reading the article.

          1. No, it really isn’t clear. Most old people have a harder time picking up on newer technology, just as they tend not to be interested in current pop music. Would you suggest it contemptuous to assume Grandma is unfamiliar with the latest Bruno Mars single?

          2. The real world isn’t perfect, but it’s not all bad. In case you’d like to visit sometime.

    2. Yeah, I don’t see where the leap to “contempt” comes from.

      There’s plenty of stuff our grandparents know how to do that most of us are clueless about; the fact that there exists a small minority of younger people who know how to operate a cotton gin or butter churn or something wouldn’t completely invalidate Grandma’s guess that I probably don’t know how to do that. Grandmothers like Dr. Quinn should be held up as examples of what girls can aspire to, but in 2013 are hardly the norm.

      (That said, we could come up with a better shorthand than the Grandma thing for “How would you explain the idea in a clear, compelling way so that people without a technical background can understand you?” Because pretty soon, as the generations that grew up with household high tech age, the stereotype is going to be as outdated as “listens to Lawrence Welk” or “knows how to operate a cotton gin.”)

  2. drive a stake through the heart of stupid, thoughtless phrases like “How would you explain that to your grandmother?” or “So simple my grandma could do it.”

    Let’s replace grandma with marketer, no-one would care.

    1. Yeah, but nobody would actually believe that you made something simple enough that a marketer could use. 

  3. It’d be hard to explain technology to any of my grandmothers…they’ve been dead for 20 years.

  4. I’ve never understood why geeks hold their grandmothers in such contempt.

    My grandmother is in her 80s and has never used a computer, and further has been hostile to the idea for some time. Takes away from other things. I don’t think I’ve ever pondered “could Grandma do this?” in a contemptuous way, but hey, a sci-fi author I’ve never met told me I did so it must be true.
    In all seriousness, I see where you’re coming from and agree to a certain degree. Heck, when Eric S. Raymond wrote his rant about Aunt Tillie building a Linux kernel, I complained about it. IIRC I complained TO him about it (over the Internet, because I’ve never met him.) If you’ve never read it, it’s truly cringe-worthy.
    I try not to conflate ignorance (grandma can’t use a computer) with stupidity, so I don’t hold her in contempt.
    Many of us have grandparents who aren’t tech-savvy. I don’t know what it means that we pick Grandma. Maybe I thought Grandma was more likely to use one than Grandpa, who would more likely hit the thing with a shovel than actually use it.It was thanks to my other Grandma that I had a PC when I was 12. She bought my cousins and I Tandy 1000 EXes. I still have mine in a closet. She may not have wanted a computer, or even running water (true story) but she knew we were going to need to know a thing or two. If that Grandpa had been alive, he probably would have bought us axes or something. Thanks to using DOS back then, I’m not afraid of the command line.

    I hope my kids don’t feel the same way about my mom, who worked in IT.

    1. Exactly. Part of it is a generational thing. The grandmother depicted in the article is younger than my *mother* (who yes, uses a computer in her 70s). My grandparents are now all dead, but they were born before the First World War, and not only computers, but things like CDs baffled them — I think it’s because they thought in a mechanical fashion and they could intuitively understand what makes a typewriter or a record turntable work, but not electronic things. Perhaps I’ll be the same when we get quantum computers, not being able to get qubits and the like.

      1. It’s more like the older generation wanted to understand it but couldn’t, whereas the youngsters these days don’t expect to be able to understand how it works, since no one knows how anything works any more.

        1. Yes, the dark side of user interfaces is that one learns a new one simply from analogy of previous ones — you are expected to understand the controls of a CD-player or MP3 player from analogy with those of cassette decks or VCRs, not because the controls really correspond to how things work inside.

  5. Gonna be honest, I have a hell of a time even talking to my gramma, not taking into account that she has flipped her shit because her computer was turned off and she forgot where the power button was. To top it off, she’s 90, hardline catholich, and mostly deaf. Trying to play any board game in this house is delightful since she thinks most are works of the devil for some reason. :3

      1. My mother’s family is mostly Catholich, but on my father’s side it’s mostly Southern Bapshees.

  6. My 78 year-old mother is on her 5th iPhone and her 3rd iPad (my sister is glad for the cast offs), and she uploads her art projects to the website that she runs.  I don’t help her for any of it.

    Don’t give me that grandma shit.

    1. Right. Because everyone at Boingboing agrees that ownership of iDevices is synonymous with great technical understanding.

  7. it’s awesome to say this to your students if your grandma is brlliant in technology (without letting them know that your grandma is brilliant in tech until the end of the year).

    wonderful way to turn a whole year’s egging on to a lesson on presumption/prejudice.

  8. That website is fantastic! As a young, female Math and Computer Science student, I’m beginning to see the kind of discrimination against women in STEM fields who don’t live completely within the male gender stereotype. Maternity, especially, is seen as a failing of your nerd cred, which I find utterly ridiculous. Just because I want to someday activate my own incredibly efficient Von Neumann machine capabilities, doesn’t mean I kick any less ass in the STEM world. I proudly salute the incredible ladies who came way before me, blazing the trail to not only gender parity, but reevaluation of stereotypes and gender. Thanks, Cory!

  9. Never mind my grandparents (who were all awesome people who did working-class labor their entire lives and helped their kids have better lives than they did); I sometimes have difficulty explaining tech stuff to some of my siblings, even though there’s only a few years of difference. (I’m not even saying that I know that much about tech, because I don’t, really; it’s all relative.) 

  10. Barely related, but I have to vent.

    My wife frustrates me.  Here she is, late 30s, smart as can be, and I would be lost without her, probably homeless.  We both went to college at the same time, both had to work with technology all the time…and it’s like she actively worked toward not learning anything.  She works with computers all the time, same deal.  On anything else, she can just pay attention to something, and gets it.  On computers, she has to have a detailed, itemized list.  There are even times I’ll have to explain, “Now, if it does this, you have to do this instead…” and it totally blows her mind.  My dad is the same way.
    I know that if she’d apply herself, she’d do just fine.  I keep reminding her that, someday, I might not be around and she might not have time to have someone else troubleshoot it, to no avail.

    It really bothers me for our girls to see her do that.  I don’t want them to get the impression that when something goes wrong, just go get a man.  They act like I’m just being mean if I say that, but our eight-year-old won’t even bother to read what’s on the screen before she calls for help.

    Our four-year-old, now…her only hangup seems to be that the laptop doesn’t have a multitouch screen.  Patience, kid, someday you’ll have one…if they don’t invent something better before then.

    1.  Please review my statement above. Individuals have individualized strengths and weaknesses. Your wife seems to have a number of strengths, and so do you, and your kids seem to have their own. Teach your kids that rather than worrying about either of you being the perfect role model.

    2. You sound like a good dad. It’s awesome that you’re concerned about your daughters inadvertently picking up disempowering messages.

      If you teach your daughters how to seek answers and solve problems on their own, they’ll grow up to rely on themselves instead of running to men for help.

      One day maybe your wife will be running to *them* for tech help.

  11. There is also the phrase “don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs” which puts grandmothers in a completely different light. I rather think if we asked them our grandmothers might be more concerned with celebrating any achievement rather than hierarchising them in order to denigrate those who have not achieved what we have achieved. Grandmothers also paint, write, run marathons, climb mountains and some even bake cakes.

  12. Just as geek has become the new cool, being old will be seen as being cooler than being young soon, at least I hope so !

    1. Once we have robot bodies and replacement organs grown from stem cells, it’ll be pretty lame to be young. The young will have no advantages. They’ll just be inexperienced.

  13. At first I too was pretty offended by the “contempt” troll bait. Then I realized that within the last week I referred to a non-expert part of my own (million-plus) user base as “grandmas”, and the sys-admin and I had a good chuckle.

    So, while I am offended at the generalization, I also realize that I need to check my lazy use of sexist, ageist language. Especially in a professional context.

  14. My wife is a grandmother four times over, and while she’s not a particle physicist, she’s computer-savvy enough to use the Linux command line to troubleshoot her own system problems, and she’s not even a computer professional.

    This is a part of the general young-people assumption that older people can’t understand technology.  It makes life hard for aging tech workers in the job market.

  15. Grandmothers experiences have changed as time progresses. Once upon a time grandmas would have grown up in the inter-war period, then they were active in WW2, now it seems that they’ve grown up in the sixties, a time of great social change. So it’s not really a surprise.

  16. When I first got into computers in 1965, the programming and operations field were in a stage where about half the practitioners were women, a good many of them middle-aged and some even older.  That was because increasing commercial utilization had broken the field out of the academic plantation — no one knew how to find, or make, a programmer, some people just happened to have the talent and were willing and able to get on to the practice.

    Gradually, the academic system turned itself around, and after five or ten years, recaptured the field.  It was consigned to ‘engineering’, and we all know what kind of person an ‘engineer’ is.  To wit: male, White, and square.  Now that programmers were under academic credentialism, women could be easily excluded, either overtly and explicitly, or by an offensive and hostile atmosphere. 

    By 1981, when I was trying to staff a project, every one of the two dozen people HR sent to me was male, with one exception, a highly competent middle-aged German woman.   When I tried to hire this exception, higher management turned me down, referring to her as ‘your girl friend’.  Academe and Management had gratifyingly bonded over sexism and ageism.

    This is what the ‘even your grandma’ crap comes out of.  I doubt if it has changed much in the last thirty years.  Always struggling to keep his place in a declining social order, the male, the White, the square use what means they can: ageism, sexism, and racism to exclude those who are not on their team. 

    1. Yes. The “even my grandma” bullshit is so offensive not because my own actual grandmother is highly tech competent and provides technical support to her children, but because in one sentence it tells us that tech is inherently for young people and men. Which is self-evident bullshit that perpetuates the exclusion-by-hostility of women and older people from the tech world and denies the reality that women WERE the tech world when the tech world dawned, and all of that is some rank, historically-inaccurate fuckwittery. The technical capacities of your own personal grandmothers are not the relevant factor here.

  17. The more I think about it, this is really just playing to our strengths.  If my grandparents were alive, I could rag on them about not being tech savvy.  Just like my grandmother could bitch about the fact I can’t kill a chicken with my bare hands and have no idea how to de-feather and gut it.

    If my grandparents were my age right now and the world ended they would have vastly better odds of making it than I would.  Who gives a shit if mamaw can’t surf the web, her fried chicken and gravy was/is the best I’ve ever had.

  18. I’ve got a 60-year-old aunt who learned to code on punch cards, back in the day. (These days she teaches project management. With Legos.)

    The sad part is meeting older women who *believe* the “dumb grandma” mindset. “Oh, I can’t learn that, I’m too old.” No, lady, listen: yes, learning new technology gets harder as you get older, and maybe you don’t want to spend your time and energy on that when you could be doing other things: that’s fine. But if you want to, yes, you can learn it. Yes, you are capable. And there are people out there who do more than learn, who are your age and older and are inventing whole new technologies.

    My mom (who is grandmother to two) is on Facebook more than I am and keeps an iPad in her purse. One of these days, I’m gonna convince her to get ArtRage on her iPad because she’s artistic and would have a lot of fun with it.

  19. ‘how would you explain that to your grandmother?’

    Why would you explain it to your grandmother?

    What dick would say that?  Seriously, firstly Granny might well think ‘I don’t giving a rat’s ass, punk – make some money and move out’, secondly it may well be so irrelevant to her life that she couldn’t give a rat’s ass, thirdly it might be so left field and abstract to her entire life that she wouldn’t give a rat’s ass, fourthly if it’s properly done and has good user implementation anyone can understand it – fail that and you’re a dick, and finally if you can’t explain something succinctly and interestingly to someone then you’re boring and windy, and probably don’t understand it yourself, so stop dreaming of some VC fund picking you up in a limo and driving you to paradise.

    My dad is over 80 and loves his ipad.  He’s got a background in engineering, and spends more time figuring out how it does what it does than using it.

    I’ve only met a few poor souls with dementia who can’t process well presented information.  Everyone else – fine, with anything.

    Punk-ass pseudo-genii.

  20. In my previous job, we had a method of troubleshooting which involved explaining the problem to another person, one unfamiliar with the system in question. The purpose was to get the person with the problem to list the relevant facts of the problem. At that point, the answer would usually appear  like magic.

    We called this method “describing the problem to your mother”. It was not considered the least bit condescending, because we all knew that our mothers were not electrical engineers, and we were well aware that our mothers were all very smart people, having produced us. 

  21. Let’s take a moment to contemplate what the gender part of “grandma” is in there.  In my case, it’s not so much that I would assume that my grandmother would be less competent than my grandfather (though as they are all dead it’s not actually a question at this point) but rather that my grandmother might actually be willing to listen to me.  “How you would explain this to you grandfather” would be answered with a short, “I wouldn’t.”

    But I’d also like to second the other posters that thinking of someone as technologically ignorant is not the same as holding them in contempt.

  22. As a technical writer who spends a lot of time around R&D Engineers and Software Developers, any way to introduce the idea that the stuff they create should be easy to use is blessed by me. Call it explain it to a 5 years old. Call it explain it to your Grandma. Call it KISS. I don’t care. Just get them thinking about people using it who aren’t them.

  23. My grandma earned her pilots’ license after she retired at 65, and my aunt kicked down the gender doors at a top-rank STEM school, and spent her entire career as an aerospace engineer.  If I can’t explain it to grandma, the problem is that I don’t understand it adequately myself.

    1. My mother was a research scientist; she would have been trying to explain it to me.

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