September 8, 2007

It's time to retire the mom test

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

One of the more humorous ad series today is the Geico "caveman" commercials, featuring a caveman complaining about the stereotype of something being "so easy a caveman could do it." Since we don't have to worry about offending cavemen (or cavewomen), companies can safely poke humor at that demographic group and not worry about alienating anyone. However, you might want to think twice about saying "it's so easy your mom can do it."

You're probably familiar with the phrase "the mom test," which is quick shorthand for "the most clueless computer user we can find." When being bandied about by a mostly male crowd, and a smattering of pre-motherhood female IT professionals, it's easy for this sort of condescension to pass unnoticed -- but it's not unnoticed by the mothers who have a clue and who deserve just as much credit as the father geeks in the crowd.

I've thought about this several times recently, after attending a talk at LinuxWorld Expo where someone said the concept of the workspace on Linux needed to be dumbed down for "single moms," and once again when computer shopping with my partner after the salesperson commented that she had brought a geek with her -- as if she weren't capable of being geeky on her own. While my partner might turn to me for a second opinion on a computer purchase, she's fully geeked out in her own right and fully capable of computer shopping on her own. Just because she's a mom doesn't mean she's helpless around computers -- but that certainly seems to be the dominant attitude.

This brought to the fore something that I've seen -- but not noticed -- for years. I could point to a number of examples where support efforts are described as making it "easy enough for your mom to do it", or the question is "Is Linux ready for mom?" If it's not mom, then it's grandma who is conjectured to be too feeble to grok computers.

But why do moms and grandmas take the fall when plenty of male parental units are just as computer-challenged as their female counterparts? Is there something about the reproductive process that's supposed to render mothers incapable of comprehending computers? Or is this just a not-so-subtle form of sexism, in that we assume moms are clueless with computers, whereas dads -- thanks to an extra supply of testosterone, perhaps -- will be able to muddle along without assistance?

Before you rush to the comments to reply, "but my mom really is clueless with computers," let me assure you that my mom is too (sorry, Mom). However, my dad isn't exactly a kernel hacker either (sorry, Pop), but I don't hear anyone going around saying "this needs to be easy enough for dads to use."

I'm not saying that anyone is deliberately trying to insult women by talking about the mom test, but it is time that we deliberately take steps to remove the phrase from our active lexicon.

To be sure, this isn't limited to the FOSS community or even the computing industry -- there's plenty of gender bias in evidence when you talk about moms (and women in general) and car repair, home improvement, and so forth. But if we really want to encourage more people to participate in the FOSS community, it'd be a big help if we stopped talking down to the moms in our midst.

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