The Nerd Stereotype Deters Women From Computer Science Careers

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

Stereotypical images of “computer nerds” commonly put forward by television and movies can have a chilling effect on women entering the field of computer science, according to new research from the University of Washington.

However, when these images are downplayed in the print media, women express more interest in further education in this field, the researchers said.

Despite years of effort, it has long been difficult to recruit women into many fields that are perceived to be masculine and male-dominated, such as computer science. The prevalent image of the lone computer scientist focused only on technology stands in stark contrast to a more people-oriented or traditionally feminine image, the researchers said.

Sapna Cheryan, lead researcher of the current study, said understanding what prevents women from entering computer science is key to achieving gender parity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Cheryan and team investigated this shortage of women in computer science and other scientific fields, seeking to prove it is not only due to a lack of interest in the subject matter on the part of women.

The investigators completed two studies. In the first, 293 college students from two West Coast universities were asked to provide descriptions of computer science majors. The researchers wanted to discover what the stereotypical computer scientist looked like in students’ minds.

Both women and men spontaneously offered an image of computer scientists as technology-oriented, intensely focused on computers, intelligent and socially unskilled. These characteristics contrast with the female gender role and are inconsistent with how many women see themselves, the researchers said.

The researchers conducted a second study to examine whether the way a social group is portrayed in the media also influences how people think about that group and their relation to it. In that study, the researchers used fabricated newspaper articles to manipulate the students’ images of a computer scientist to investigate the influence this had on women’s interest in entering the field.

A total of 54 students read articles about computer science majors that described these students as either matching or not matching the common stereotypes. The students were then asked to rate their interest in computer science.

The results showed exposure to a newspaper article claiming computer science majors no longer fit current preconceived notions increased women’s interest in majoring in computer science, compared with exposure to a newspaper article that portrayed computer scientists as reflecting current stereotypes.

The male participants were unaffected by how computer science majors were represented in the articles.

“Broadening the image of the people in the field using media representations may help to recruit more women into male-dominated fields such as computer science. Moreover, the media may be a powerful transmitter of stereotypes, and prevent many women from entering these fields,” the researchers concluded.

The research is published online in the current issue of the journal Sex Roles.

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