Latent Sexism in Technology

Recently, Google posted a new video and blog post entitled “Grandmother’s Guide to Video Chat”. They’ve even included printable instructions. Aside from the 1950s reminiscent visuals of a little old lady, and the word ‘grandma’ in a few places, it’s just a pretty good description of setting up Google Voice & Video Chat. Now, I’ve never bothered with the software since it doesn’t have a Linux version, but easy video conferencing is important for a lot of people. Since my wife and I will likely be moving away from our parents in the next few years, before we have any children, I suspect that once we do have kids, we’ll be on video chat of some kind pretty regularly.

So, why do I bring it up? At first I just found it interesting that Google decided to go the Grandma route. It reminded me that we almost always talk about people who are uncomfortable with technology by talking our mothers and grandmothers. In the Linux world for years we’ve talked about the ‘Mom Test’, to determine when the OS was available for non-geek consumption. People on Planet Ubuntu still talk about the Mom Test on a regular basis. This prompted me to ask, why do we only ever talk about out mothers when it comes to problems with technology?

I got the following response on Twitter:

@foxxtrot Because people want to take care of their mothers, so it is more frustrating when their mom can’t use technology?

It’s probably a reasonably valid point, but I know I spend a hell of a lot more time explaining things how things on the computer work to my father than my mother.

What I find most interesting, is that the technology industry has been working to promote women on technology via Ada Lovelace Day, the setting up of Ubuntu Women, and competitions to bring attention to women using Linux. Point being, that we recognize the stigma against women in our discipline, but I think the fact that we talk about the ‘Mom Test’ for technology, or Google’s new ‘Grandmother’ guide, suggests a latent sexism that still hasn’t left the industry.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into Google’s campaign. I’m positive that they intended the campaign as nothing more than a humorous set of instructions for setting up your computer for video chat. It may not have been any better if it was “Grandfather’s Guide”. Any generalization is going to be at least partially insulting to someone, and all I’m really trying to suggest is that we need to be fully cognizant of the implications of such generalizations, and in computing, the generalization that women aren’t good with (or interested in) computers is a problematic one. I don’t have statistics handy at this moment about the gender distribution in computer science programs, or similar disciplines. I do know that even five years ago, as I was finishing up my Undergrad, it was still very low. I suspect the trend is up, but if we really want to be vigilant about making that distribution more even, it’s important we’re careful about this particular generalization year round.