Best of Systers

Grandma Got STEM

by Iffat Gill

The issue of gender imbalance in STEM fields is not new. For a wonderful look at the women that went before us, one of the Systers shared an amazing blog about grandmothers who are/were remarkable scientists and technologists.  Grandma got STEM, The origin of this blog project, is a reaction to the commonly asked question “how would you explain it to your grandmother?” What people actually mean by this expression is: How would you explain this idea in a clear compelling way to the people from non-technical background? Through this public awareness project, the author of the blog aims to collect stories and pictures of grandmothers in STEM and has already managed to build quite a collection of grandmas from around the world.

The blog started the discussion thread about the grandmas that are on Systers list. Fortunately, we also have STEM grandmas on the Systers list. What if you are old enough to be in the grandma club, but lack grandchildren or even children? The Systers are happy to include those that technically might not be grand-“mothers”. They are the courageous women who managed to have careers in the male dominated field of STEM and were not driven out of the field by misogyny. They are the ones who paved the way for other women to follow.

On numerous occasions the work of these women was published or attributed to their male supervisors or team members. Vicki Fletcher speaks about her mother, “a great grandmother” in STEM, Francis (Jones) Schmitz who had a degree in nuclear physics in the late 50s and wrote code. Ms. Schmitz wrote most of the code for early versions of data compression software but a man on her team got the credit. Notably, not only was Ms. Schmitz reticent about her accomplishments, she said at times that she did not mind men taking credit for her work.

The idea of being in such a grandma club may sound condescending to some because of the use of poorly chosen phrases implying that all senior or old people are simply technophobic. But the basic purpose of such an effort is to applaud senior women who have contributed a great deal in STEM field. Some important work done by these women may have gone unnoticed or was not considered noteworthy but the circumstances for women to study or work in STEM fields were not always very welcoming half a century ago. (ED: unlike now, right?)

Following is a summary of the discussion at the Systers’ list:

I wonder how many grandmothers, other than me, are on this list. – Judith Barnett

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+1 for the gramma club. – Vicki Fletcher

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I’m old enough to be a grandmother.  I never had any kids so becoming a grandmother is not very likely. – Cathy Sullivan

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I have adult kids but no grandkids. I think Cathy and I might qualify at least by age. The good news is that some of us older Systers coming forward ARE women who got into STEM early on and have tried to pave the way for others. As we can see by the blog posts many of us have been disturbed about, there’s a way to go, but yes, we are here. – Dale Wolff

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+1 for me. I have 4 grandkids under 6 but I’m already trying to figure out the right time and tools to start them on programming.  :-)  Probably a few years away still… – Ginny

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I had my kids later on in life so they are just old enough now to have kids off their own but don’t have, however, my younger sister has 8 grandchildren. – Carol

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Not only am I a grandmother in STEM, I am the daughter of a great grandmother in STEM.  My mother, Francine (Jones) Schmitz, who as near as I can tell is completely unknown in the annals of women in tech, graduated with a masters degree in nuclear physics in the late 50s. In the beginning of her career, she developed a lot of the code that was later embedded in ROM. She wrote most of the code for the first versions of data compression software – although a man on her team got the credit (but he was on a 6 mo leave at the time, go figure) and she wrote a great deal of the first database software – they needed one, and such a thing didn’t exist.  They were cataloging all of the components on the gemini then apollo rockets, and on the nuclear subs.  She was working for Aerojet contracted to NASA at the time and never spoke about her work because it was all classified until the mid 70s.  Later, she worked for the state of California as a Civil Engineer, designing Highways, Salmon ladders, and writing a great deal of technical documentation. In the 80s and 90s, she was put in charge of putting California’s Employment Department and California Tax department on the Internet.

She was truly a pioneer of computing and of the Internet.  She has always been reticent about her accomplishments and has said at times that she didn’t mind that the men took credit for her work – but I don’t think that was really true – I think she minded a *lot* and just buried her feelings on the subject. ­- Vicki Fletcher

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Looking through the blog, the author is very loosely defining”grandmother.”  You don’t have to be an actual grandmother as defined by having grandkids, but be at a similar age/maturity/ generation etc.  You should submit your stories! – Megan Olsen

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I know this is well-intentioned, but (while I’m not a grandmother), this phrase kind of grates on me— it seems subtly condescending.

To be a bit disingenuous, why should it be a big deal that there are older women in tech?  Presumably their years make them more skilled and experienced.  And the climate for women in CS was in general more welcoming ~30 years ago than it is now— just look at the stats. -Amy Unruh

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The only reason it’s a big deal to me is because so many of my peers were driven out of the field by increasing misogyny. I’m always excited to find women who stuck it out. –Piglet

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Yeah, I can see that it sounds condescending. Poor word choice. However, I think it IS a big deal that there are older women in tech. As a young woman in tech it sends an encouraging message that no this is not a boys-only club, these women have been in it for years!

Also just like the girls are stereotyped as being technologically illiterate, so are people over a certain age (at least in the States. I can’t speak for anywhere else). For evidence see the character of GrandSanta in Arthur Christmas or that viral video of the elderly couple that didn’t realize they were filming themselves on the webcam or the fact that BBC recently ran a headline “Are older people getting tech savvy?” or the AARP’s recent addresses to sooth “technology fear in older adults” or countless other places. So these “grandmas” are breaking down 2 stereotypes at once. – Julia Winegeart

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To Julia’s point of the stereotype of older people and technology, I have two things to say, unfortunately, neither of them encouraging:

1. My mother is a retired nursing professor who was contributing and editing questions in nursing license review books until last year. She is almost 89. And yet, when I’ve accompanied her on doctor appointments, she is treated like a child. This may change as boomers retire (we never accept that kind of treatment!), but I think this overall stereotype is what makes us so amazed that older women have actually had intellectually stimulating careers, making significant contributions to society.

2. In the 1990s,as personal computing took hold and the internet and email became standard modes of communication, I was told repeatedly by older people at my job that “people over 40 aren’t familiar with this and won’t want to use it. Younger people in their 20′s will be able to do this technology because they grew up with it.” Fast forward to 2009. I was putting in a system at a major city hospital and guess what I heard? “People over 40 don’t want to use this. Only those in their 20′s would be comfortable with this technology. I realize that it’s an excuse for resisting change regardless of what that change is. I still do not like that is perpetuates a myth/stereotype about older people and technology. – Dale Wolff

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I didn’t see it as condescending – rather as a notion that comes against the idea that Grandmas, and by extension other women, are not interested in or fit for tech. Anyone old enough to remember what those women went through would have nothing but respect. – Vicki Fletcher

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I’ve been a grandma since December 30th, 2012!

He’s a cutie pie! :D – Penelope Luedtke

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We do need to reinforce that women can & do program, and have careers.

My mother, who is a grandmother, majored in math, and started a software company in the early 80s. The business is still a going concern 30 years later. Now her sister, my aunt, runs it, who is not yet a grandmother, though she is of an age to be one. – Judith S.

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Just chiming in as yet another STEM (IT director) grandmother. One 18 year old, two 13- year olds and one eight year old. I bought them each a real computer when they each turned 8.  Older ones are programming in Python.  I told them I had learned on BASIC and Pascal ( I was grown up by then) , then had to tell them what those were.  They all have tablets but that seems about like saying they have eyes and hands! – Harriet Wasserman

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I like the GGSTEM project because of its purpose: to help stop the use of the phrase “so simple your grandmother could understand it” which is widely used even by the most well meaning of people. Taking offense at the idea that it is necessary is a great reason to participate, as its goal is to break the stereotype that caused the blog’s creation: that grandmothers can’t do computing. – Megan Olsen

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That’s a great point, Megan — it’s irritating *because* it’s our current reality.  Grr.

I will move the emphasis in my head to *got*.  As in, Grandma *got* STEM.  Subtext: moron.  Instead of the “look at the dancing bear” subtext of “Grandma got *STEM*!” – Piglet

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I was pleased to see the Grey Panthers applaud the GGSTEM effort. I think this is a gentle and fun enough reminder to avoid most of the trolls, which will be good for the nerves of some of us. – Doris B. (Unofficial grandma)

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Celebrating these women’s work will allow them to become role models for young girls and women who are thinking about following in their footsteps. In order to preserve these stories for future and present generations, it may be worth it to look at solutions that have greater longevity.

One suggested solution is to create profile pages on Wikipedia. Connecting the profiles of these STEM pioneers to larger articles and subjects on Wikipedia will raise their profile and also raise awareness about them to the readers, especially young females.

Anyone can become a Wikipedia editor, get going!

Learn more about Systers by visiting our website at https://anitab.org/get-involved/systers/.