It's the little assumptions

Via Geek Feminism Blog:Advertisement: Can you solve one of our puzzles? Can you explain it to your mom? We’re hiring hackers with people skills.
Post It Note: My mom has a PhD in Math

It’s amazing how often science oriented speakers or advertisements will say stuff like “Explain it so mom/grandma can understand.” One of those things you take for granted until someone points it out to you. Does feminism have more important issues to talk about? Sure. But the little assumptions can add up.


  1. says

    I tried to explain colour theory to my parents when I was in year 10, how objects are only reflecting that colour so you could argue that in reality they are the opposite colour to what you see- mum got it right away, dad said I was crazy and refused to believe it. My dad’s not the sharpest knife in the draw…

  2. Ben says

    I don’t know about this one. Ageist? Certainly. Sexist? I dunno. You could easily place “dad” or “grandfather” there and the point is the same. Unless “mum” is used a hell of a lot more than “dad” when it comes to this sort of thing (I don’t really know), so I’m willing to be educated on that fact. I can certainly understand why it might be the case, I just want to know if it is.So, is it more common to use “mum” instead of “dad”? (sorry for the Americans, I just can’t force myself to put an “o” in there)

  3. Rob says

    That’s a derivative of an Albert Einstein quote: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” It made sense that in his day one’s grandmother would not typically be well educated (if educated at all). But using it today is an anachronism.

  4. LS says

    Now, I *hate* it, when some guy walks into a discussion about women’s issues and says “BUT IT HAPPEN TO MEN TOO! D=”Also, my view on this is limited to my own experience. But in that experience, “so simple, even DAD could understand it!” is so common I hear some variation of it 2-4 times a day.

  5. Ben says

    Sorry, I’m confused here. Are you declaring this a women’s issue and therefore men aren’t allowed to comment, or you saying this isn’t a women’s issue but one about ageism, in which case men are welcome to comment and say as much?I’m asking because your opening sentence is making me feel as if men aren’t welcome in this discussion or even on this blog anymore. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. LS says

    If you spend more than 15 minutes looking at discussions about women’s issues and feminism online, there is invariably a dozen men who claim that the issue being discussed isn’t really sexism, because men have to deal with some similar (invariably lesser) sexism. The wording changes, but the dismissive attitude is universally apparent. My opening statement was meant merely as an acknowledgment of this issue, in the hopes that I would not be mistaken for someone who commonly dismisses women’s issues. Rather, my personal experience (which is, of course, merely anecdotal evidence) would imply that the issue of parents not understanding things is not unfairly weighted toward women parents. That said, it’s very possible that, even if the volume of such references is not weighted to one gender more than another, the context might. If, for example, women are “dumb parents” when science is involved, and dads are “dumb parents” in commercials about iPads, then even though both genders are being maligned, evenly, the distribution would indicate a sexist bias at work.

  7. Karen Rustad says

    “Mom” and “Grandma” get used a lot in these sorts of “how do we design/explain things for n00bs” discussions in open source software land. One of my fellow lady coders has suggested that instead in such instances we should use Mr. Bean. Non-gendered, amusing, and true!

  8. Earl says

    Just thought I’d chime in with a info on why this phrase gets used. Statistically, across cultures, girls are less computer literate than boys and unlike boys tend to focus on how technology is used rather than how it works. So, in user interface design, if you want to say “design it for someone who probably won’t understand the nuts and bolts when they use it”, odds are in the real world that person would be older and, yes, female. It’s a handy shorthand for thinking in terms of “make it usable for the least technically-savvy person out there”, but still, a pretty unsettling social observation. I wish more schools would get involved in targeting women’s anxieties about technology.

  9. Ben says

    I know the issue, I have spent considerable time reading women’s opinions and practically zero time commenting on them (except in support, usually telling other men to stfu and listen).Anyway, thanks for clarifying: your first statement was pretty much what I’d assumed—a swipe at men not taking women’s issues seriously. Which is a serious problem, of course, but not one which applies in this case, on this post, right now.I would suggest limiting such comments to when they’re actually warranted, lest the guys who visit this blog come to the assumption that their opinions don’t matter, and thus don’t return.

  10. Earl says

    Err, I meant to say “with a little info” instead of “with a info” above. Eye swear aye no English, honest!

  11. sunnybook3 says

    Hoo boy. “Mom” is used so much more often than “dad.” I’m rather sensitive to it, as I am a mom. It’s a pervasive attitude, too. If I meet someone at work (I’m a librarian) and talk to that person for a while and *then* mention I have kids, I get a slightly surprised look–often even a “*you* have kids?” The subtle implication being, “but you have a brain!” The reverse is true as well. If I meet someone when I have my kids with me, that person will look slightly surprised if I start talking about things like Inca architecture or the declension of Russian nouns or how mitochondrial DNA can be used to study early human migration patterns. (Further surprised looks when people discover I have a sense of humor, too….) There’s a common assumption in American culture that getting knocked up kills brain cells. It pisses me off, but it does provide me some entertainment when I can mess with that assumption! Nothing is more fun than being talked down to and then subtly maneuvering the conversation so that the condescending person has to suddenly reassess the situation….

  12. Blain says

    The problem is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, especially with lies, damn lies, and statistics.”I wish more schools would get involved in targeting women’s anxieties about technology”This strikes me odd. First, schools typically teach children, unless you mean this issue should be addressed only after they become adult men and women. Second, the point of the post was not of “women’s anxieties”. The problem that needs addressing is the mistaken belief that women are or should be “anxious” about technology in the first place. Third, the solution is not with some other, but with ourselves. Finally, the first step is to highlight and draw attention to the fallacies, which is exactly what the OP did.

  13. Joshua says

    Those little assumptions indeed. I admit, it took me a minute figure out what Jen’s post was about, even with the title.

  14. Earl says

    It really shouldn’t strike you as odd. Early education often has great results when it comes to encouraging women to participate in technology-oriented fields. Likewise, more anxiety about technology is often cited as a major reason why women have more trouble getting comfortable with computers than men do. It’s not a mistaken belief, or a lie (and is actually quite citable if you want what I consider to be some interesting reading). Remember: an assessment in, say, social research doesn’t invalidate an ideal, even if you don’t find that assessment particularly flattering. Part of fixing a problem is having an accurate understanding of it.In case I wasn’t clear, the phrase is used in software development. Unless you’ve ever actually tried to think about user experience and user interface design, the nuance of the phrase will probably be lost on you. I wanted to provide some perspective from the ad’s intended audience.

  15. Anonymous says

    Woman here. My anecdote: my dad is logic-based, my mom would have trouble understanding. Same thing would apply to both of my sets of grandparents. Sorry.

  16. The Great Attractor says

    I usually hear the “dad” one in relation to operating electronic equipment. (So simple – even your dad could use it!)

  17. says

    I don’t like the expression generally, but I do use it at times due to my personal experience. My mom grew up in a small rural village in Ireland. She knew who owned every car and her chore in the morning was to get water from the well. Now she sends text messages, emails and gets her news from blogs.If I can manage to make half the tech leaps she’s made I think I’ll be doing OK. And that’s usually the context I make it in. The point is either, “she made these huge leaps, what’s your problem with doing a comparatively small one?” or it’s “why are you pointlessly changing things that will just confuse and annoy people who’ve forgotten more skills than you’ve learned?”But yes, without context it’s an asshole-ish comparison.

  18. Smiles302 says

    Throwing it out there that both by parents are physicists. To be fair, those sort of assumptions are the things that I just pass by without noticing. I don’t think it’s necessarily sexist. It’s more a designer coming from a non-science family forgetting that science oriented families exist.

  19. says

    My dad has a degree in maths. My mother doesn’t have a degree. She earns almost twice what he earns. She got her job through people skills.

  20. L.Long says

    The problem with the sign isn’t that it is slightly sexist, the problem is that is it true.Go to any city, select 20 women (over 30) at random and try to explain some science to her so that she gets it. How many will?It is a denouncement on both the educational system, advisers, and especially parents that would allow 50% of the people grow ignorant in basic science.The ‘she will waste it cuz she is going to be a mom’ meme is disgusting, as she will have to make intelligent decisions when voting and for her kids.The good thing is this is changing now and someday it will be difficult to find a way to right the sign. My daughter has a masters in biology while her mom has problems with complex science.

  21. says

    The point, as I see it, is that this is the tip of the iceberg where assumptions like this are concerned. “Mum” or “grandma” are the benchmark of a lack of education; innumerable sayings, often positive, assume masculinity (unless you actually agree with the claim that the masculine is the general in English); “the best way to get something done is to give it to a busy woman” (which may seem female-positive, but think about it a bit); there’s no male equivalent to “the girl next door” to epitomise innocence. I’m sure there’s more.

  22. says

    It’s a different thing. ‘Mr Bean’ is referring to a particular individual. ‘Mr Bean’ doesn’t refer to anything but a fictional character played by Rowan Atkinson. Saying ‘your mum/grandma/etc’ makes gendered assumptions about all people who are mothers/grandmas/etc.

  23. Jwalker1960 says

    I hope you don’t mind, Jen, but I stole your title for my blog post on the same subject, but I went a little bit more into detail about why ads like this are bad and what we can do about it. This includes sending a letter to ITA Software explaining why this ad perpetuates a negative stereotype about woman. I’ve included a Word doc that people can download, fill in their name and address, and send to ITA Software. You can find all that here: http://freethinkingfordummies….

  24. says

    This comment thread reminds me of Geico’s “So Easy a Caveman Could do it” campaign, where the cavemen get all offended by the slogan.The fact that several people seem to have responded to this overtly sexist ad with “but it’s true!” shows how much of a problem these assumptions are. Women are not stupid!

  25. says

    How about “…explain it to a 10 year old.” I’ve heard that one used a lot. Nice and gender neutral.Or, “…to a creationist.” There. Gratuitous fundie bashing accomplished. :)Nah, can’t ‘splain nothin’ to no creationist.

  26. sunnybook3 says

    I respectfully disagree with you. The problem with the sign is that it is sexist. If it contains the germ of truth, it does so *because* these attitudes have existed for so long. Growing up, I was told by my grandmothers “boys won’t like you if you’re too smart.” Thankfully, both my parents had inoculated me against that idea–I was always told at home that I could become whatever I wanted. My response to the “boys won’t like you” thing was always, “well, maybe *I* won’t like *them*!” (As it turns out, my grandmothers were dead wrong–and boys who like smart chicks tend to make better boyfriends, anyway.) But how many girls are raised with this idea and believe it? How many see signs like this and learn that not much is expected of them–especially if she decides to have children? How many women have internalized the message that having intelligence and having kids are incompatible?As for your question about rounding up a random selection of over-30 women and explaining science to them, I would suggest that the same experiment with over-30 men would not necessarily go all that differently. Don’t assume that, because a woman has not already been educated in science or math, she is incapable of understanding science or math when it is explained to her, regardless of her age.I also don’t think that the fault lies with the educational system and advisors–there has been awareness of preferential treatment for boys in math and science for more than 20 years and strides have been made in helping girls to feel comfortable in these classes.I do agree with you that the “she’ll waste it” meme is disgusting and that things are improving. I think that more improvements will be made as more people become aware of these stupid little assumptions and that there really is no basis for them.

  27. sunnybook3 says

    I just read your blog post–your letter is awesome. As an educated mom, THANK YOU! Honestly, your letter made my day and I will be reposting it.

  28. Cfmilner says

    This is only from personal experience but I agree that, in my case, early tech education by my father means that I’m very confident around technology. (He sold PCs when they were a new concept so we had quite a bit of tech at home.)I’m interested in the citations that you mention in your post. Could you share them please?

  29. Jwalker1960 says

    sunnybook3, it is my duty and pleasure! I am a feminist and humanist. I’m also a dad with a 13 year old daughter who I’ve raised not to accept any sexist crap from anyone. I owe her, you and every woman I meet the respect as people that you deserve.

  30. Tony says

    a 10 year old is way more likely to be able to use electronics than your average parent. Both my parents are computer illiterate. I get to do all their tech support and my level of computer skill is “knows how to use Google effectively”

  31. TFM says

    1. Group X are stupid.2. Group X are less likely to be techies than Group Y.I think you’re rebutting something like #1, where Group X = Women, but I don’t think the “it’s true” responses are making that assertion. I think they mean something closer to #2, where Group X = Middle-aged moms and Group Y = Middle-aged dads (assuming the recruiting ad is targeting young adults). Imagine if every young person who passed by this sign, that had a parent (or two) with a PhD in Math (or a computer or scientific field) also put up a post-it to that effect. Would you expect to see as many moms as dads in the post-it census? It’s not a happy state of affairs, and ads like this probably perpetuate the expectations that result in such an imbalance, but I don’t think it follows that anyone who thinks there’s a kernel of truth in #2 is jumping on the “women are stupid” train.

  32. Jwilder204 says

    Ok, so Tea Cosy, would you be alright with us saying “So easy you could explain it to Jessica Simpson.”I bet you would not.

  33. Drakk says

    This reminds me of that Rutherford quote – “An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.”I honestly see this as more pointing out the lack of tech saturation in previous generations as opposed to just being sexist.

  34. Charon says

    I’m one of the many here who think that this stereotype 1) has substantial truth to it, and 2) is a bit harmful.1) Look at the faculty of any university science department. Way, way more men than women. This is fortunately changing a bit (compare the male to female ratio of grad students to that of the professors), but is still really skewed towards men. This is especially true in CS. Random mom is probably at least 10 times less likely to have a CS degree than random dad.2) Reinforcing the notion that women are inherently worse at tech fields is problematic. Pointing out that this ad is problematic – something I admit I would not have noticed on my own – is appreciated.For the record, my mom once told me “you were born to do whatever it is that you do.” (I’m an astrophysicist. And yes, I can explain some of it to my mom, but my dad really does get a lot more of it. And he is also the more tech-savvy of the two, by far.)

  35. says

    Exactly.TBH, I know pretty much nothing about Jessica Simpson. However, I’ll guess that she has a certain public persona. But we have no idea how well that matches up to her private persona.Mr Bean? He doesn’t actually exist.However, I’d be perfectly happy to replace ‘Mr Bean” with a female equivalent.

  36. says

    I could counter that with “my (female) housemate is a statistician and one of the most logical people I know”. Anecdotes like this are precisely the reason why we have the social sciences to clear things up.

  37. says

    Yuck. I hate it when they use a female category to stand in for “a person who can’t understand anything technical.” Personally, I have a Ph.D. in math and am more interested in mathematical/geometric puzzles than my husband is (though he also has a Ph.D. in math).To all those folks who think it doesn’t matter that they said “Mom” instead of “Dad” I have one more data point to add: Once I was in the middle of a job interview right around the time the iPhone first came out, and some guy (not involved in the interview) burst into the room to show his brand new iPhone to the guys who were interviewing me. The iPhone guy — with a big smile and laugh — said that it was “so simple that even a woman can use it!” Yes. He said that. In those words. Right in front of me, while I was interviewing for an engineering position. (I plead the fifth on whether I took that job or not.)

  38. Charon says

    Yep, and the statistics say men are more likely to understand the technical things. Not that they are more able to learn technical subjects, but that in practice, currently, they do know more about them. And yes, we should fix this.

  39. Charon says

    More information on this from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (… ), nicely plotted up at… .Women earn just over 30% of math PhDs, just under 20% of CS PhDs, and ~18% of physics PhDs. In 1970, women earned ~3% of physics PhDs. The numbers are probably slightly better for undergrad degrees, but definitely not at parity.So to those of you arguing this stereotype isn’t true because “my female roomate is a statistician” or “I’m a woman and I have a PhD in math”, you are wrong. We all know the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data”.But even if a stereotype is generally true, it can still be harmful. Because while women really are underrepresented in hard sciences (biology largely excepted), and were definitely more underrepresented when your mom was at school, this is a problem we want to fix. Not a stereotype we want to perpetuate.

  40. Charon says

    While I agree this stereotype is harmful, in fairness to the ad, it is using “mom” as shorthand for “a person who doesn’t understand anything technical”, not necessarily “can’t.” And the former claim, while not something we want to perpetuate, is on average somewhat true (see data above). The latter claim is not true at all.

  41. says

    This was one of the things that came from one of my aunts.She divorced her (abusive) husband a number of years ago. At the time it happened one of her smaller anxieties had to do with fixing things around the house – she expected it would be too complicated for her.That is, until she opened up the back of a fan that wasn’t working, cleaned out the dust and grime, put it back together, and it started working again.All that time she’d thought this kind of thing was hard. When it really wasn’t.The way she phrased it to me was: “I used to think that only men did this kind of thing because it was hard… But now I know that only men do that kind of thing because it’s EASY. If it was hard, men wouldn’t be doing it.”Not to say I’m endorsing reverse-sexism, of course. But it was still an empowering moment for her.

  42. says

    Heh, good point! When my wife was an elementary school teacher (beginning in the days of Commodore 64s, then Apple IIs) she happily admitted that her students were her tech support.

  43. says

    Absolutely. One of the major ways to fix this is by countering negative stereotypes that women aren’t technical. If someone expects that they won’t be able to do a thing, they’re less likely to do well at it. Or try in the first place. Also, if someone expects that another person won’t be able to do a thing, their view of that person doing that thing will be negatively biased. This is why ads like this are problematic- it’s not that they don’t reflect a current social reality. It’s that they also work to perpetuate it.

  44. JM says

    In our case, we (parents of adult kids) are the computer geeks and help our kids with computer problems. Our mothers (87 and 88) are the ones using computers while our fathers didn’t really. My dad and my youngest daughter were/are both engineers (chemical and mechanical) and they’re the ones who can fix anything else. So the expertise is pretty spread around. So any assumption based on gender is going to be wrong for us.

  45. Rollingforest says

    I think that this post makes a good point. They wouldn’t have written “can you explain it to your father?” because that wouldn’t have had the same effect in people’s mind since they consider that fact that the father might have the training to solve these problems. Until “mother” and “father” can be used equally successfully in this kind of advertizement, I will admit that sexism is still present.

  46. turtlebucket says

    I am a middle aged woman with a grown son. It’s entirely plausible that my son would interview at this company, meaning that this is ME they’re talking about, very specifically. I work in IT, though, too, so it’s also plausible that I would end up at an interview at this company that just used my very specific demographic–i.e., ME–as shorthand for a technically inept user; and I’ve run across it any number of times.That’s right. I work in an industry where my sex and age are widely considered to be shorthand for ineptitude.I love the work I do, but sometimes, I hate the industry.

  47. Peter M says

    When I went to the ITA careers page, I noticed the following things right off the bat:1) They feature pictures of 12 employees, which you can click to get more information. Exactly half the employees represented are women. Exactly none of them are software engineers, most being QA.2) Their Twitter feed included a rt to a link to the meetup:”The Boston Python Meetup Group: A project-driven introduction to Python for women and their friends”.I’m not really sure how to interpret this in the context of the current discussion, but it seemed interesting to me.

  48. says

    One of my grandmas favorite stories involves the punchline that she and her two sisters couldn’t get my uncle’s bleeding-edge television working to watch Coro Street, but my two-year-old cousin Hamish managed to turn it on to watch cartoons with little fuss five minutes later.

  49. Karen Rustad says

    Oh, hey! My best friend is teaching that meetup! :D They don’t have any actual relation to ITA, though. I guess their social media person must’ve run across it.

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