Of girls and geeks: Environment may be why women don't like computer science

December 14, 2009 by Joel Schwarz,

Just the appearance of science fiction memorabilia, computer game boxes and junk food in a classroom or workplace is enough to create an environment that makes computer science an unattractive field to many women. Photo by Sapna Cheryan
(PhysOrg.com) -- 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 of as nerds who stay up all night coding and have no social life may be driving 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, memorabilia and ," said 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 said

Cheryan set up four experiments involving more than 250 female and male 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 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 said 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. "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," said Cheryan.

"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 . 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.

Source: University of Washington (news : web)

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5 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2009
"That stereotype doesn't appeal to many women who don't like the portrait of masculinity that it evokes."

ROFL, I think they meant to say anti-masculinity...
4.7 / 5 (6) Dec 14, 2009
I'm not sure about anyone else, but in all of college I never once saw a classroom with Star Trek posters and certainly not with coke cans strewn about. It might be more likely in high school where teachers seem to personalize their rooms more, but in my experience I've never seen anything like it in an official setting. Then again I am a male that likes Star Trek and have coke cans and video game boxes strewn about my apartment. I probably wouldn't notice.
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 14, 2009
The students were told to ignore these objects because the room was being shared with another class.

Women exposed to the stereotypical setup expressed less interest in computer science than those who saw the non-stereotypical objects.

Were they really effected by the environment??

Men placed in the same situations did not show a similar drop in interest in computer science.

Do guys just filter out the environment anyway and answered the question without bias.

The more women perceived the stereotypical environment as masculine, the less interested they were in that company.

--- So its not the geekiness or percieved awkwardness of the people it is the percieved masculinity of the environment that turns off women from the job. Got it...

But how does this equate to a 18 yr old in high school picking a major... most have never been in a college class room let alone an IT department, or application development area.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 14, 2009
It's like I tell my daughter, "boys are icky and have cooties"
3 / 5 (2) Dec 14, 2009
El_Nose, Most people enter college choosing a field that's either very generic, or completely random. The odds of an individual -changing majors- after the -first year- of college is pretty damn high.

At least at state universities which attract wide and varied demographic (referring to mentality not race).

Point is, people don't always avoid specific fields because they don't know what it's like, it's because they -do- enter it and realize it's not 'for them'.
Dec 14, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
2 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2009
Girls don't like programming, because they concentrate with difficulty in similar way, like black people.


Actually I used to be some what of a good programmer. I am now a lab technician and a musician because I am more right brained by choice.

I bet if you put flowers on them(with built in make up mirror) and made them smell good, girls would like engineers, programmers and computers!
5 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2009
I'm not sure what is more insulting; that of confusing a geek w/ a nerd, or that this study shows how shallow "women" can be.
4 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2009
I suggest the response is to percieved status of coworkers. I read somewhere women are more attracted to High status and since geeks/nerds are low status, they probably don't want to be associated. Guys, I read are less status oriented, so maybe they care less or perhaps they like the idea of being in a workplace where decorating to promote status isn't the norm.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2009
I think it's ridiculous that as Americans we find intelligence to be a negative trait, calling them nerds, geeks, etc. and I could see how that turns people off. I have no problem calling myself a nerd, I'm comfortable with myself and my intelligence. People get too affected by what others think of them or view them as.
not rated yet Dec 15, 2009
any idea under the sun is "it" except the truth...
4 / 5 (3) Dec 15, 2009
Am I the only one who is just really sick of being told how we have to pander to women, who really have no real interest in computers in the first place? I know some chicks who are geeks, computer techs and one who is a java programmer. THEY love trek, have pyramids made of soda cans, etc. Trying to please everybody means you will ultimately please nobody.
4.5 / 5 (2) Dec 15, 2009
@brant - I am black and a programmer -- in fact I would say that most of the black people I have met who try out programming have no issue with it -- most just find it boring, or lack the drive to sit in front of a computer all day.

I do not think girls have an issue with concentration -- rather mainly men have that issue -- women are grounded in reality on a level I as a male would never be confortable with -- they live and experience life closer to what it actually is than I do.

Most people who have issues with CS it is because of one of three things -- how to interact between the levels of abstrations has never been properly explained ... they were taught the tools of CS -- loops, structures, lists, logical operations, but not how to think of how to put them together , gone are the days of sitting down with a piece of paper and developing an algorithm ... and some just never get either of those and thus will never program.
4.5 / 5 (2) Dec 15, 2009
Programmer here.
Programming is hard. The reason "geeks" work long hours.
If you watch television, it appears that you are a failure if have a job that requires effort.

A fun example: right click this page with your mouse. Select: View page source
Amazing stuff, huh?

And, if the programmer who wrote it quits, his (or her) replacement will notice that there are no comments to help figure out what is intended. In fact, if the programmer who wrote it doesn't see it for a couple of months, there will be confusion.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2009
Very shocking article for me. I happen to be female, but I LOVE the environment I am in within the IT field. I'm an avid gamer and surround myself with the cool futuristic and old fashioned Star Trek memorbilia. I'm always reading very cool futuristic books, when I'm not playing games. ;)

I don't see how more women aren't into it. I personally don't care about my nails, I don't use Coach bags, though in this profession I could easily afford it. I'm actually pretty frugal and I hate shopping, unless it's at Amazon.com where I don't have to leave the house. ;) Some women are simply too shallow and care about the wrong things.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2009
LOL had to respond to some of these comments I'm seeing posted here. I am personally attracted to nerds/geeks. In fact, if I had to choose between banging Brad Pitt or Bill Gates, I'd take Bill in a heartbeat. Or wait, what about that Neil DeGrassiguy? Rawr. When I see a hot looking guy it's actually a turn off for me. I can't help but think, yea he's probably a jerk... most good looking guys KNOW they are good looking and act like jerks. I would rather have a super cool nerdy man that loves to play games and watch SciFi. I don't care about status, I want brains! :)

Am I the only woman that has figured this out??
5 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2009
"Am I the only one who is just really sick of being told how we have to pander to women, who really have no real interest in computers in the first place?"

I agree! If someone decides to make this a frufru profession and starts hanging up pink fluffy posters I'm OUTTA HERE. I love nerdy men, why should you have to change anything???
5 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2009
This study makes the mistake of interpreting the results to literally.

Women most likely take the surrounding as the indication of what kind of people work there, the environment is only a proxy which invokes the images of potential coworkers - and it's likely those images of coworkers, shaped by popular culture, which dissuade them.

But let's be honest here they are right if they infer from the surrounding that by going into engineering they will likely face plenty of computer nerds. And if they don't like such people they may be happier in a different profession.

So I don't think tweaking the surrounding to induce women to pick engineering is a good idea since it amounts to hiding the truth from them.

The main question here is whether the goal is to lure more women into engineering even if they won't like it there or is it to induce them to make career choices which will suit them better? The idea of tweaking the surrounding is only compatible with the first.
not rated yet Dec 15, 2009
But if they do what this article suggests and give class rooms / labs a different environment then these women will get a shock when they enter the real world of IT geekdom and find l33t haxx0rz with star wars posters, staying up late eating pizza, sitting in big leather swivel chairs surrounded by their own filth.
4 / 5 (1) Dec 17, 2009
The main question here is whether the goal is to lure more women into engineering even if they won't like it there or is it to induce them to make career choices which will suit them better?

"Cleaning up" the working environment to attract people who are not naturally attracted to computer science will make the people working there less productive. :-(

More important, when I started to work with computers and the related math (in the early '60s) before the name Computer Science was associated with it, I realized that there were two requirements which were almost mutually exclusive.

I had to be able to spend long hours dealing with a world where the rules were very different from the "real world." And I had to be able to return to the real world outside of work. Thinking about a neat proof that a problem is NP-hard is fine in some circumstances--but not while driving home.

Some people who can't handle the transition end up in asylums, others in the morgue.
not rated yet Dec 17, 2009
My school consisted of generic, undecorated classrooms which pretty much turned everyone off but I "coped" by simply doing the work and not going to class.

This study is fine if you want some generic data processing or java script company. All I care about is getting the 98 percentile and above. Such people are not dissuaded by externals (though everyone likes a more "google-like" environment), instead they look at the content of the job to make their choice.
not rated yet Dec 19, 2009
I agree with most of the posters that results of the study are very ambiguous. Follow-on studies would have to be performed on the same people to determine if the men for example were simply less effected by their environments overall no matter what changes took place. Given that most people prefer to be in an environment they perceive to be clean, it would also be important to clarify if it was that bias that was being detected. Perhaps the woman see coke cans as unsanitary and unclean (I certainly do), rather than any concept of masculinity as suggested by the authors. Maybe they just don't like the flies and sticky mess.

Given the already known influence of subliminal factors in career choice however, the results could be interpreted a large number of ways. I just do not agree with the author's that they have demonstrated anything useful.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 20, 2009
American women need to get over themselves. Ten years ago you found a lot of women in computer science, oddly enough because computer science was considered to be a path to riches. They've shifted from computer sciences to law school because the shine is off of computer sciences and the path to riches seems to be through a law office.

That says nothing very nice about both perceptions and motivations commonly held by American women. :-/
not rated yet Dec 20, 2009
I don't understand the connection between the guy poster study and *education*. I don't recall ever seeing star-trek posters or anything like it in any school/class I ever attended and schools have no control over workplace settings.

From what I've always understood women tend not to go for CS or some science fields in general because they just are simply not interested.. In much the same way guys are not interested in barbie dolls and ponies. Wanting to be inclusive especially in an educational setting is a good thing but going too far by ignoring simple realities can be harmful.

I'm thinking about an extreme where painting the walls pink and borrowing cute furry tribbles from Harry Mudd might sucker a few additional women into the CS field. Would such stunts ultimately be good for them in the long run?
not rated yet Dec 25, 2009
I'm a girl with a phd in CS. What I can tell you is that we, like other girls, live with the real threat of domestic violence and mysogeny. Pornography is another aspect of put-downs on women in our society. My career in CS was wrecked when my (famous) advisor would not give me a letter of recommendation unless I let him put his hand on my leg. In our field, there are lots of people who do not have an easy time in the world. Some of them are the sweetest people in the world. Other ones are bizarre.

Women need to pay attention to the signals that indicate an environment is safe. Since most video games involve getting points for killing things, and our general characters are stereotypes of a male view of us, isn't it kind of a no-brainer why we don't like those environments? doh.
not rated yet Dec 25, 2009
My career in CS was wrecked when my (famous) advisor would not give me a letter of recommendation unless I let him put his hand on my leg.

That's nasty. Next time someone makes such remarks try to record it to have a proof. This will give you many more options.
not rated yet Jan 03, 2010
I always thought "geek" meant "someone who didn't bathe". And considering the vast amount of buggy programs which simultaneously ignore the actual needs of end-users in favor of dominating control-freakiness written into the code, "intelligent" surely does not apply. Consider the type of personality trait required to enjoy putting a thousand square blocks in a thousand square holes in a specific order. Since most jobs involve maintaining pretty things for the end-user I consider coders the equivilent of a mechanic for my car. Design a car from scratch and I might be impressed. Bill Gates you are not.even.close. More like the overpaid janitor at MicroSoft.

Shockingly enough, sexism exists, and for years the stated excuse for deliberatly fostering an unwelcome environment for women in ANY workplace was that they'd rather stay home and have babies. The signal "we treat women like crap" used to be pin-up calendars, now it's StarWars posters. Same old shiat, different day.
not rated yet Jan 03, 2010
Er, you needed to read that twice. (seriously, sorry for the double.)

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