The mystery of why more females don’t embrace computing professions rolls on and on. Many feel it’s due to the boys club in places such as Silicon Valley, but research from The University Of Washington suggests there may be something else going on.
An article in The Journal was published recently : Research: Broaden Stereotypes To Draw Women into CS and Engineering by Dian Schaffhauser. The article itself is based on the following research : Cultural stereotypes as gatekeepers: increasing girls’ interest in computer science and engineering by diversifying stereotypes by Sapna Cheryan, Allison Master and Andrew N. Meltzoff.
The Journal makes the following claim :
The stereotype of the typical computer scientist or engineer as somebody who’s white or Asian, socially inept, obsessed with technology and almost always male is keeping girls out of those fields, according to a new study from the University of Washington.
That’s really not something that I’d considered as a barrier to females entering computer science and engineering professions. The research comes from an American perspective but I’d imagine a lot of the findings would apply to many western countries. The research also extends to looking at how females react in online scenarios and even cites past research involving Second Life.
So what is a stereotypical computing geek like? Well the research paper cites media representations :
Popular movies and television shows like Real Genius, The Big Bang Theory, and Silicon Valley depict computer scientists and engineers as mostly White (and more recently Asian) males, socially unskilled, and singularly obsessed with technology.
Ok so right away I’ve got a frowny face over this research, but ok those portrayals may be considered sterotypical but people look beyond stereotypes right … no really, they do? Well the research carried out some tests regarding this, one was quite straight forward :
To examine the extent to which exposure to stereotypical and non-stereotypical media representations influence women’s interest in computer science, women undergraduates read one of two fabricated newspaper articles. One article stated that computer scientists fit the current stereotypes, while the other stated that computer scientists were diversifying and no longer fit the stereotypes. Women who read the stereotypical article expressed less interest in majoring in computer science than women who read the non-stereotypical article. Furthermore, women who read the non-stereotypical article were significantly more interested in computer science than women who read no article.
However moving away from media stereotypes, what happens when females encounter real people? The researchers carried out a test, they invited females to take part in short conversation with actors, three male actors and three female actors. The purpose of this was to test how stereotypical geekiness might influence a female :
half of the participants were randomly assigned to interact with an actor who fit current stereotypes in appearance and preferences (e.g., glasses, t-shirt that said “I code therefore I am,” hobbies that included playing videogames) or one who did not fit these stereotypes (e.g., solid colored t-shirt, hobbies that included hanging out with friends). After the interaction was complete, participants were asked about their interest in their partner’s major and then asked the same questions again 2 weeks later.
Results revealed that women who interacted with the stereotypical student were significantly less interested in majoring in computer science than those who interacted with the non-stereotypical student, and this effect was equally strong regardless of whether the actor was male or female. Moreover, negative effects of stereotypes endured for 2 weeks after the interaction. The computer science major’s gender mattered less in influencing women’s interest in computer science than the extent to which he or she fit current computer science stereotypes.
That’s rather fascinating. So the non-selling point wasn’t just about the gender of the person whom females interacted with, it was how stereotypically geeky they were too.
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