Women, Stereotypes, Media and Computer Science

U.S. Navy photo by Greg Vojtko

Computer scientists and people working in related fields (e.g., programmers) are predominantly men. And while there has been a significant increase in the number of women entering computer science over the past 40 years, they are not even close to parity. According to a recent study, this disparity may be due in large part to media representations of computer scientists.

What does the sex disparity look like in computer science? According to a September 2013 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, “Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin,” only 26.6 percent of “computer workers” in 2011 were women. That’s a big jump from 15 percent, which was the case in 1970, but down from a high of 34 percent in 1990.

Further, there is enormous variation within the “computer worker” fields. For example, in 2011, 40.1 percent of database administrators were women – but only 11.4 percent of computer network architects were women.

The Study

One reason that women may not be pursuing careers in computer science is that the “pervasive ‘computer nerd’ stereotype discourages women from pursuing a major in computer science.” That quote is from a July 2013 paper in the journal Sex Roles, titled “The Stereotypical Computer Scientist: Gendered Media Representations as a Barrier to Inclusion for Women” (citation below).

Photo: Lady Pain (Marta Manso)

The abstract describes the study and its findings clearly and succinctly (I wish all abstracts were this clearly written!), so I’ll quote from it at length:

“In Study 1, college students at two U.S. West Coast universities (N=293) provided descriptions of computer science majors. Coding these descriptions revealed that computer scientists were perceived as having traits that are incompatible with the female gender role, such as lacking interpersonal skills and being singularly focused on computers. In Study 2, college students at two U.S. West Coast universities (N=54) read fabricated newspaper articles about computer scientists that either described them as fitting the current stereotypes or no longer fitting these stereotypes. Women who read that computer scientists no longer fit the stereotypes expressed more interest in computer science than those who read that computer scientists fit the stereotypes. In contrast, men’s interest in computer science did not differ across articles. Taken together, these studies suggest that stereotypes of academic fields influence who chooses to participate in these fields, and that recruiting efforts to draw more women into computer science would benefit from media efforts that alter how computer scientists are depicted.”

You get all that? The researchers found that students associate computer scientists with a certain set of traits, and that those traits are not compatible with the traits they associate with women. Ergo, many of the women participating in the study did not think of themselves as potential computer scientists. However, when women were told that computer scientists don’t have to fit the computer scientist stereotype, they were more open to the idea of pursuing computer science.

My Two Cents

The bad news is that, as the study authors put it, “Efforts made by educators to attract more women into computer science may be rendered significantly less potent if the media continue to portray computer scientists in a way that is incompatible with how women see themselves.”

That’s disheartening, because it makes it sound as if efforts from educators, scientists and employers to encourage diversity are facing a Sisyphean task.

But the paper also points a way forward. We need to ask people to get out of lazy habits and stop writing to stereotypes. We should encourage writers, reporters, TV producers and others to steer clear of language and images that reinforce the idea that computer scientists are all socially-challenged misfits with bad wardrobes. Not only would this encourage a more diverse group of people to take an interest in computer science, but it would be a more honest depiction of the community. I know a lot of computer scientists, and almost none of them fit the stereotype.

And I’d also argue that efforts from educators, the research community and employers to foster diversity are also incredibly valuable. Because encouraging women to take an interest in computer science isn’t enough. We have to be able to provide the opportunities and encouragement that are necessary to keep them in the field.

Note 1: The study first came to my attention via a blog post from the Wall Street Journal called “Why Aren’t Women Interested in Computer Science?” – it’s worth a read.

Note 2: Citation below.

The Stereotypical Computer Scientist: Gendered Media Representations as a Barrier to Inclusion for Women,” Sex Roles, July 2013, Sapna Cheryan, Victoria C. Plaut, Caitlin Handron, and Lauren Hudson. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-013-0296-x


2 thoughts on “Women, Stereotypes, Media and Computer Science

  1. Doreen DiMento Farthing

    As a computer programmer and systems designer for 10 years and then as an attorney working primarily with technology people at technology companies for more than 20 years, I know a bit about the subject. “We have to be able to provide the opportunities and encouragement that are necessary to keep them in the field.” is what prompts me to comment. Although media portrayal may indeed affect a person’s decision to enter a field, the daily reality and hopelessness that change will occur are what drive a person away. The problem affects not just women but all “diverse” people. My experience is that people are very optimistic about what they can learn and accomplish with encouragement and support and they are willing to put up with less-than-perfect results for quite some time if the effort and sincere intent to create a change is there. They leave when they no longer believe. My message to you: STOP FOCUSING ON THE WRONG END OF THE PROBLEM. Work to re-educate the senior management and HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE for results. The senior manager affects the character development, behavior and demeanor of a company the way a coach affects the character development, demeanor and behavior of the players. Protecting the status quo, hiring in one’s own image, laughing at the discomfort of others and tolerating an environment where designating some people as “other” are far more determinative of whether a woman or an immigrant or a person of color will feel a particular career path will be comfortable and rewarding and limited only by one’s own effort and merit than will media portrayal. And trust me, word gets around fast; good and great companies have far less trouble attracting and retaining top talent than do lesser companies. Civil rights battles captured a great deal of media attention when many of the people now in senior positions were children; perhaps the better place to focus is on encouraging them, challenging them to change that part of the world that they control and thereby leave a better legacy for all of the people, young and old, who will come after them.


  2. Pingback: People Deem Feminine Women Less Likely to Be Scientists – Science Communication Breakdown

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