Not Your Grandma's Lazy Stereotype

A plea to conference speakers

 ·  3 min read

By Keira

Grace Hopper sitting at the UNIVAC keyboard.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been writing talk proposals for some upcoming tech conferences. This has seen me watching talks, reading blogs and proposals, so I can learn from the best.

It also means coming across the cliches and stereotypes we use as shorthand. One in particular is really starting to grate.

“This exploit is so easy your grandma could use it!”

“How do we make security so simple my nana could handle it?”

“How to explain blockchain to your grandmother”

To be fair, this isn’t just the tech scene; a lot of people use “grandmother” (or “mother” or “grandad”) as a catch-all for ignorant, incompetent and non-technical.

It’s not OK, and there are a number of reasons why.

It’s ageist

Using an older person as the butt of your joke plays into damaging stereotypes that older people are incapable of grasping technical concepts. It can make older people feel irrelevant, and it’s not accurate. Your own grandparents may not be engineers, or even internet users, but plenty of older people are. And also, how would your nana feel about you joking about her lack of skills in front of a room full of people?

It’s sexist

Although some people do use grandfathers in their examples, grandmothers seem to be the more common variant, and this stereotype exists in a world where women are generally taken to be less technically competent than men across all STEM fields. I recognise that most people who use this phrase didn’t intend to hurt anyone. But that’s not how oppression works – what matters is the impact of your words, not the intention.

It disempowers your users

If you develop anything meant to be used by other people, chances are some of them are older. They might be grandmothers. Reinforcing the idea that they are inherently incompetent can alienate and disempower these users, no matter their personal level of competence. It’s just not good for business.

It’s not even funny

This stereotype is so old, and so over-used that it’s really not even funny. If you want humor, maybe try an actual joke about something your whole audience can relate to, and skip the cliches.

It ignores history, reality and women’s achievements

Women can be grandmothers as early as their late thirties. You almost definitely work with someone’s grandmother or grandfather (or someone who could be), or you have users or clients who are grandparents.

And don’t forget that all technology is built on top of the work of others. Grandmothers, and women who could be grandmothers, wrote some of the languages you use, they designed some of the systems you hack on, and they coined some of the phrases you like.

Grace Hopper could figure out your new coding language. Evelyn Boyd Granville would understand your cool new proof just fine. Radia Perlman can handle your new algorithm. Margaret Hamilton could probably point out your bugs. And it goes without saying that they don’t need your condescension.

If you’d wouldn’t sub in the name of some famous tech elder like Ray Kurzweil or Steve Wozniak for your ‘Grandma’ or ‘Nana’, you shouldn’t be using the phrase.

So, can we stop it with the lazy stereotypes?

Just say what you actually mean.

Here are some examples to get you started:

“This exploit is so easy, you don’t need any experience to use it!”

“How do we make security simple enough that users can feel confident?”

“How to explain blockchain to a total newbie”

International Women’s Day is on March 8th, and the theme this year is “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”. We will probably post more on the topic of women in tech in the next few weeks.

Photo credit: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons, cropped.

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