Stereotypes steer women away from computer science

Surroundings can ‘communicate a sense of belonging’ or ‘exclusion’

The gender gap in computer science may have been widened by Star Trek, a new study suggests — but it could be bridged with a less geeky image.

WRONG SETTING Women in the study were more interested in computer science after spending time in the “non-geeky” room than they were after hanging out in the “geeky room.” Photo: Sapna Cheryan

New research published in the December Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that the stereotype of computer scientists as unwashed nerds may be partially responsible for the dearth of women in the field, as shown by National Science Foundation statistics.

“What this research shows is that the image of computer science — this geeky, masculine image — can make women feel like they don’t belong,” says lead author Sapna Cheryan of the University of Washington.

“I think this is an important contribution to the literature,” says Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton of the University of California, Berkeley. He says it raises questions about how much conscious control people have over their choices.

Previous research has found that a person can get a good sense of what another individual is like just from spending a few minutes perusing that person’s bedroom. Cheryan wondered if the same was true of classrooms.

“You can get a message about whether you want to join a certain group just by seeing the physical environment that that group is associated with,” Cheryan says. “You walk in, see these objects and think, ‘This is not me.’”

Cheryan and colleagues tested this idea by alternately decorating a computer science classroom with objects that earlier surveys pegged as stereotypically geeky—Star Trek posters, video games and comic books — or with objects that the surveys found to be neutral— coffee mugs, plants and art posters. Thirty-nine college students spent a few minutes in the room, then filled out a questionnaire on their attitudes toward computer science.

Women who spent time in the geeky room reported less interest in computer science than women who saw the neutral room. For male students, however, the room’s décor made no difference.

In follow-up tests, a total of 215 students were asked to imagine they were joining either a geekily decorated or a neutrally decorated company after graduation. For every possible scenario, women preferred the non-geeky space.

“It’s a consistent effect,” Cheryan says. “The environment can communicate a sense of belonging, but it also communicates a sense of exclusion, or a sense that this is not a place where I would fit in.”

Cheryan acknowledges that the geeky classroom setup is a caricature of computer science. But, she points out, people respond to that stereotype whether it’s true or not, and study participants found the nerdy room believable.

“There’s this idea that people develop interest in their major or their chosen career through some kind of internal passion they have,” Mendoza-Denton says. “These studies show that in fact the spaces that you walk into can have those kinds of effects. Those are very subtle things that we can miss.”

Cheryan suggests that nonstereotypical depictions of computer science, in the media and in classrooms, could help update the field’s image.

Mendoza-Denton adds that the results can be put to use in other fields in which minorities are underrepresented. But first, he says, “People have to begin to take it seriously.”

“The scientific basis for making the case that the décor of a particular room matters is very clear,” he says. “But whether institutions or companies or universities decide to take those steps to increase diversity really is up to people listening to the research.”

Lisa Grossman

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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