UW News

February 11, 2015

How to interest girls in computer science and engineering? Shift the stereotypes

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Women have long been underrepresented among undergraduates in computer science and engineering for a complex variety of reasons.

A new study by University of Washington researchers identifies a main culprit for that disparity: inaccurate stereotypes depicting computer scientists and engineers as geeky, brilliant and socially awkward males. And they say broadening those stereotypes is key to attracting more girls to the two fields.

Narrow, inaccurate stereotypes about computer science and engineering can discourage girls from the two fields.

Narrow, inaccurate stereotypes about computer science and engineering can discourage girls from the two fields.Frontiers in Psychology

Deeply ingrained in modern American society, stereotypes about computer science and engineering are widely accepted by students and effectively discourage girls from pursuing careers in those fields, the researchers conclude in the study, published this week in Frontiers in Psychology.

“People use these images to decide where they fit, where they’re going to be successful and what’s appropriate for them to pursue,” said Sapna Cheryan, an associate professor of psychology and the paper’s lead author.

“The first image that comes to mind for many students is the guy who is obsessed with science fiction and technology, and not interested in people. Students often think you have to fit that image to be successful at computer science.”

While women obtain about half of undergraduate degrees in biological sciences, they earn only 18 percent of computer science degrees. Misconceptions about girls’ math abilities take root as early as second grade, the study notes, 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.

More from the researchers: Do female teachers help girls overcome STEM stereotypes?

The result: Women feel like they don’t belong in computer science or engineering, and stay away.

“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,” said Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and a co-author of the study.

Things weren’t always this way. Women were early pioneers of computing science and worked in the field for decades. But women’s interest in computing started declining in the 1980s, correlating with when early personal computers were marketed to boys as toys for gaming. The same decade, the character of the lovable geek was made famous in ‘films like “Real Genius” and “Weird Science.”

“The media plays a huge role in conveying these stereotypes,” Cheryan said.

The percentage of freshmen who plan to major in computer science or engineering, and the percentage who actually do. Source: National Science Foundation

The percentage of freshmen who plan to major in computer science or engineering, and the percentage who actually do. Source: National Science FoundationFrontiers in Psychology

To test what impact those pervasive stereotypes have on young women, the researchers brought female undergraduates into a room to have a short conversation with an actor, during which they chatted about their studies and interests. Three male and three female actors were used, and all claimed they were computer science majors.

Half the female undergrads were randomly assigned to interact with actors dressed to fit a stereotype based on what students surveyed by the researchers associated with computer scientists. Those actors claimed to enjoy solitary hobbies such as playing video games.

The other undergrads were matched with actors dressed in a way associated with typical college students, who cited hobbies including hanging out with friends.

Asked afterward about their interest in their partners’ majors, the women paired with the stereotypical actors were significantly less interested majoring in computer science. That was the case whether the actor was male or female — suggesting that gender matters less in influencing women’s interest in computer science than whether the stereotype is depicted.

Similarly, the paper cites research which found that women were less interested in computer science when they entered a classroom decorated with objects such as Star Trek posters and science fiction books than one adorned with nature posters and more neutral books.

The researchers recommend diversifying computer science and engineering to make them more inclusive and counteract stereotypes. That can be done, they say, by representing the fields with a broader range of people, creating physical spaces that welcome both men and women, and shifting the media narrative about who computer scientists and engineers are.

“Stereotypes are the pictures we carry around in our minds, but they are not necessarily accurate. The professions are much broader than many people think,” Meltzoff said.

“The scientific results are starting to teach us how to make computer science more appealing to women.”

Some schools have taken steps to reduce gender disparities in computer science. UW Computer Science & Engineering, for example, has a multifaceted outreach program to K-12 schools and outreach and support programs for UW students. Women now earn about 30 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees at the university, roughly twice the national average for research-intensive universities.

Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, divided its introductory computer science course into two sections — “gold” for those with minimal previous experience and “black” for other students – and pays for any female freshman to travel to the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference. The school’s percentage of female computer science graduates has increased from a low in the single digits to nearly 40 percent in 2012.

Though stereotypes die hard, it’s possible for computer science and engineering to break away from inaccurate perceptions, Cheryan said.

“It’s about making students aware of the diversity in computer science and engineering so that women feel that there is a place for them in the field,” she said. “This research shows that broadening the image of these fields is not only possible, it can be done with some simple changes.”

The paper’s other co-author is Allison Master, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.