Nerdiness Turns Women Off to Computer Science

Stereotypically nerdy, masculine environments can discourage women from entering this field.

Movies are full of scenarios in which one of the cool kids helps the class nerd win the girl of his dreams, usually by convincing him to change his style.

Now a new study makes a similar recommendation to college computer-science programs: Tidy up that nerdy, masculine image if you want more females in the classroom.

Assistant psychology professor Sapna Cheryan led the University of Washington study to gauge how the presence of stereotypical male computer scientist decor, such as Star Trek and video-game memorabilia, affects female attraction to the field.

Cheryan's experiment plays off the idea of ambient belonging, the feeling of fitting in (or not) a person gets when entering an environment.

"Our research suggests that having a sense of ambient belonging in classrooms and companies is an important factor in determining whether or not you choose to take a class or join a company," Cheryan told Discovery News. "This sense of ambient belonging can be communicated by the way the environments are set up."

The researchers found that typical computer scientist decor broadcasts a kind of masculinity that turned off potential female recruits. They also observed that by removing the stereotypical objects, the researchers could motivate females to consider computer science as a possible pursuit.

"Presenting alternate images of computer scientists may be one way to increase women's interest in the field," Cheryan said. "Depicting computer scientists as diverse in their interests and more than just white and Asian men could help to attract more people into the field."

The team recruited more than 250 female and male students for the project, none of whom were already studying computer science. In one experiment, 34 women were given the option of joining one of two all-female teams.

One team's workroom contained comic books, ideo-game boxes and junk food. The other room contained nature posters, healthy snacks and general interest books. Given the choice, 82 percent of the women picked the nonstereotypical workroom.

The study, "Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science," was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Cheryan's findings suggest that a slight adjustment of the decor in computer-science offices, classrooms and workspaces could increase female interest in the field.

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial agrees with Cheryan's findings, but stresses that computer-science stereotypes can be overcome easily.

"We are finding that the stereotypes are prevalent, but not entrenched as you might think," Guzdial told Discovery News. "In general, there is very little computer science in middle and high schools today. We find that a little bit of real information and experience can influence those stereotypes dramatically."

In leading Georgia Tech's "Georgia Computes!" initiative, Guzdial works to broaden the state's K-12 participation in computer science programs. He suspects that actual labs and classrooms don't factor into people's perceptions nearly as much as media portrayals do.

Although female involvement in other sciences is on the rise, only 22 percent of computer-science graduates are women. According to a 2008 National Science Foundation study, that percentage has been decreasing steadily.

Robert Lamb is a writer for HowStuffWorks.com.