Why don’t girls like computer science?

As a computer scientist, I find it hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t like it. It’s creative, intellectually stimulating, and lucrative. When done correctly, I’d even go so far as to say it is artistic.

But, that’s just me.

The fact is, I’m a rare lady. In Canada, only about one fifth of bachelor’s degrees in computer science are awarded to women. Why is this?

It turns out women may actually be turning away from the stereotypically “nerdy” environment that tends to come to mind when one envisions a computer science lab or work place: one chock-full of computer games, science-fiction memorabilia and junk food.

Stereotypical environment

Sapna Cheryan, a researcher at the University of Washington, demonstrated this in her 2009 study on the potentially alienating nature of stereotypical environmental cues.

Participants of both sexes were asked to wait for a short time before answering a questionnaire regarding their attitudes toward computer science. The room they waited in either contained stereotypically nerdy items such as soda cans, a Star Trek poster, and video games, or it contained neutral items such as a nature poster, a dictionary, and coffee mugs. Participants were asked to ignore the items in the waiting room because “the room was being shared with another class”.

While the men were unaffected by environment, the women who were exposed to the nerdy items reported significantly less interest in computer science than those who were not.

Cheryan hypothesizes this is due to what she calls “ambient belonging” – the ability of an environment to convey a sense of one’s place within it. In this case, environmental cues were letting the ladies know they didn’t belong.

If this is true, then I’m left with a nagging question: why is it that, in this day and age, “sciencey” objects are associated with male-only nerd stereotypes? Why hasn’t nerd culture caught on with women?

As a woman who very much appreciates this culture, I’m not brimming with answers. What I can do is confirm that, indeed, computer science classrooms and workplaces are every bit as saturated with this stuff as you would expect (my own study and cubical are not exceptions).

Concludes Cheryan, “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.”

Although I can appreciate that molding women to fit into computer science may not be the answer, I’m also not convinced that molding the image of computer science is the answer. Unfortunately, something’s got to give, and I just don’t think computer scientists are going to be lining up in droves to cast aside their treasured nerd schwag.


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