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Of Girls and Geeks: Why Women Don't Like Computer Science

By ­niversity of Washington

December 15, 2009

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In real estate, it’s location, location, location. And when it comes to why girls and women shy away from careers in computer science, a key reason is environment, environment, environment.

The stereotype of computer scientists as nerds who stay up all night coding and have no social life may be driving women away from the field, according to a new study published this month. This stereotype can be brought to mind based only on the appearance of the environment in a classroom or an office.

"When people think of computer science the image that immediately pops into many of their minds is of the computer geek surrounded by such things as computer games, science fiction memorabilia and junk food," says Sapna Cheryan, a University of Washington assistant professor of psychology and the study's lead author. "That stereotype doesn't appeal to many women who don't like the portrait of masculinity that it evokes."

Such objects help create what Cheryan calls ambient belonging, or the feeling that you fit or don't fit in somewhere.

"It is the sense you get right away when you walk into a room. You look at the objects and make an instant appraisal of how you would fit with the objects and the people who are typically found in that environment. You also make a judgment of 'I like it here' or 'I don't belong here,' " she says.

Cheryan set up four experiments involving more than 250 female and male students who were not studying computer science to look at possible reasons why the proportion of women in the field is dropping while the proportion of women in such disciplines as biology, mathematics and chemistry is increasing.

In the first experiment, students entered a small classroom that either contained objects stereotypically associated with computer science such as Star Trek posters, video game boxes and Coke cans, or non-stereotypical items such as nature posters, art, a dictionary and coffee mugs. The students were told to ignore these objects because the room was being shared with another class. After spending several moments in the classroom, the students filled out questionnaires that asked about their attitude toward computer science.

Women exposed to the stereotypical setup expressed less interest in computer science than those who saw the non-stereotypical objects. Men placed in the same situations did not show a similar drop in interest in computer science. Cheryan says this study suggests that a student's choice of classes or a major can be influenced by the appearance of classrooms, halls and offices.

The other three experiments which asked student to imagine stereotypical and non-stereotypical objects in various environments, found that:

  • When women were given the choice of joining one of two all-female teams at a company, and the only difference between the teams was the objects found in the teams' workrooms, 82 percent of the women picked the team with the non-stereotypical workroom.
  • The stereotypical and non-stereotypical objects were the determining factor for both women and men when they were given the choice of taking similar jobs at one of two companies that had workforces evenly split by gender. Both genders had a preference for the job in non-stereotypical work environment, but women's preferences for the non-stereotypical environment were significantly stronger than men's. Women also felt less of a sense of ambient belonging in the stereotypical work environment than men.
  • After being questioned about their attitudes toward a Web design company, males and females were asked to choose between identical job offers from two such companies. The only difference between the firms was the objects in each company's workplace. Women were more likely to accept an offer with the non-stereotypical company while men had the opposite preference. The more women perceived the stereotypical environment as masculine, the less interested they were in that company.

"These studies suggest objects such as science fiction books and Star Trek posters communicate whether or not a person belongs in an environment," Cheryan says.

"Instead of trying to change the women who do not relate to the stereotype, our research suggests that changing the image of computer science so that more women feel they fit in the field will go a long way to recruiting them into computer science," she says.

"We want to attract more people to computer science. The stereotype is not as alienating to men as women, but it still affects them as well. A lot of men may also be choosing to not enter the field because of the stereotype. We need to broaden the image of the field so both women and men feel more welcome. In workplaces and universities we can do this by changing the way offices, hallways and labs look. The media can also play a role by updating the image of computer science. It would be nice for computer scientists in movies and television to be typical people, not only computer geeks."

Co-authors of the research, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, are psychologists Victoria Plaut of the University of Georgia; Paul Davis of the University of British Columbia, Okanagan; and Claude Steele of Columbia University.



Nicole Pitts

Great article.

I am a woman in the Computer Science field. What I find that contributes to my lack of ambient belonging is that I am always surrounded by nothing but males. Nothing against males, but sometimes women need to bond with each other, also. I am usually the only female, or one of a couple of females, at any point in my field.

Also, as more and more people are becoming aware of, a lot of jobs in this field are "cube jobs." From my perspective, men seem to be more tolerant of jobs like this because of the high compensation - which in turn makes them feel satisfied at the end of the day. A woman's job satisfaction comes more from finding purpose and happiness, and a man's job satisfaction comes more from being a good provider for his family. I am not saying that women do not provide as well, but men have always been branded by society with that main responsibility, and if they perform poorly at providing for their families, they are high unsatisfied. Therefore, they seek high-paying jobs. However, many women rely on their husbands to be the bread winner without considering the 50% divorce rate in the United States. If a marriage crumbles, and a woman does not have something to back her up, like a Computer Science, Engineering, or any other currently useful degree, what will she do to save herself?

What a lot of women also do not realize that many computing and engineering jobs provide opportunities for telecommuting. This of course means the ability for women to stay home with their children avoiding the undesirable yet common occurrence of daycare providers raising them. Even working part-time would guarantee a very satisfying paycheck. What is not to love about that?

If more women were lured into computing and engineering fields by advertising the high points and benefits of the careers that can be acquired, more women would feel higher sensations of ambient belonging, which would in turn lure even more women into the fields. It is up to academia to realize this and start trying to improve the situation. There is no way for the industry to reach out to young women if they are not previously interested and therefore, without teachers and professors educating young women of these points, these fields will remain and become more and more male dominated in the future.

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