Grandma Got STEM

This public project is the brainchild of Rachel Levy, an associate professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, who was tired of hearing people say stuff like, “Just explain it like you would to your grandmother” or “That’s so easy my grandma could get it.” Levy started it “to counter the implication that grannies (gender + maternity + age) might not easily pick up on technical/theoretical ideas.” In other words, to challenge the mindless, ageist and sexist meme that older women are technically inept. Instead of ranting, Levy set up Grandma Got Stem, a blog where people share stories and remembrances about tech-savvy grandmothers—and they’re wonderful.


STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics—a major public education initiative intended to beef up woeful American inadequacies in those subject areas. I know the term because I work at a science museum, which is also why I know the story of the first “computers” in astrophysics. Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, hired a group of women in the 1890s to examine photographic plates of light from stars. It was painstaking work and the women, known as “computers,” came cheap. Pickering’s first employee was his housekeeper, Williamina Fleming, who catalogued 10,351 stars in nine years and developed the first system for categorizing them. Pickering published the team’s results under his name and it became knows as the Harvard Classification System.


This story is more about sexism than ageism, and women in science continue to face  systematic discrimination. (They had to wait until the 1960s to get access to the world’s largest telescopes.) And you don’t need to be a grandmother in order to have had a career in science, as Levy’s application makes clear. But the “granny” packs a double whammy. It’s no surprise that geeky grandmas have been gratifyingly easy to come by; the blog is packed with moving stories of women at work across the 20th century in fields ranging from aeronautics to paleontology. It’s high time to retire the “granny test” when it comes to technology.  And the “mom test.” And the “girlfriend test.” 


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