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How to Interest Girls in Computer Science and Engineering? Shift the Stereotypes

By ­W Today

February 13, 2015

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Inaccurate stereotypes depicting computer scientists and engineers as geeky, brilliant, and socially awkward males are the key culprits in the underrepresentation of women in computer science and engineering, and broadening those stereotypes is important to attracting more girls to the two fields, according to a University of Washington study.

Although women earn about 50 percent of undergraduate degrees in biological sciences, they obtain only 18 percent of computer science degrees. In addition, misconceptions about girls' ability in math take hold as early as second grade, and combine with stereotypes about the culture of the two fields as being incompatible with traits associated with women, such as a desire to work with and help others, according to the study.

"Our work uncovers a kind of double whammy that discourages women from the field--a combination of false stereotypes about women's abilities, coupled with a narrow view of the culture of the field and who can be successful computer scientists," says study co-author Andrew Meltzoff.

The researchers tested how these stereotypes affected young women by having female undergraduates talk to actors about their studies and interests. Three male and three female actors were used, and all said they were computer science majors. Half of the actors were instructed to fit the stereotypes of computer science majors. Afterwards, the students paired with the stereotypical actors were significantly less interested in majoring in computer science.

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