Do geek stereotypes keep women out of computer science?

The media is full of geek stereotypes, everywhere from Big Bang Theory to episodes of CSI and NCIS. These images of geeks as antisocial, immature dorks may seem harmless — but a new study suggests these media images help keep women out of computer science.

A team of researchers at University of Washington decided to find out how media representations of geeks affect women's interest in the computer field. Previous studies have shown that a lot of women stay away from computers and other technical fields because they perceive them as being only for a certain type of man. One 2011 study found that women who were exposed to biographies of female engineers had a more positive attitude towards math than women who only saw biographies of male engineers.

But TV shows and movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Big Bang Theory may help convince women that computer science (and other STEM fields) are only for men who have a particular personality type, or belong to a particular subculture. As the UW researchers write in their paper, both men and women believe that a computer scientist is "a genius male computer hacker who spends a great deal of time alone on the computer, has an inadequate social life, and enjoys hobbies involving science fiction."

They write:

Unfortunately, the people in STEM careers are often depicted in a highly stereotypical manner (Kendall 1999; Schibeci 1986; see also Steinke 2005). Movies such as Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, and WarGames promoted the image of the “computer nerd” during the 1980s (Barker and Aspray 2006; Schott and Selwyn 2000), coinciding with the beginning of the decline in the proportion of women pursuing computer science in the U.S. (National Science Foundation 2002). More recently, CBS’s popular television show The Big Bang Theory, currently in its sixth season, profiles graduate students in physics and engineering who look and act in ways consistent with computer science stereotypes. These media representations are especially troubling considering that children report that television, movies, and magazines constitute their primary source of information about what scientists are like (Fort and Varney 1989; Steinke et al. 2007). Such media depictions may cause students to believe that these characteristics are not only typical but even required of people in the field. As a result, students who do not fit the current stereotypes may be discouraged from developing an interest in these fields.

In the first part of the UW study, Sapna Cheryan and her team set out to survey the prevailing image of computer scientists among students at UW and Stanford. And they found a high percentage of both male and female students believing that computer scientists are male, obsessed with computers, antisocial or isolated, or "pale, thin [and] unattractive." And that computer scientists "play WoW all day long." Interestingly, women who had taken even just one computer science class were much less likely to believe in these stereotypes.

Of course, it's worth mentioning that Cheryan and her team lumped in attributes like "intelligent" and "highly focused on computers" with the other stereotypes — and at times, reading the Cheryan study, you get the impression that the researchers believed that the perception that computer scientists are too focused on computers, or that they "dream in code," might be part of what keep women away. Whereas, you might think being highly focused on computers would be a desirable quality in a computer scientist, regardless of gender or other habits.

In any case, the second part of the UW study, Cheryan divided the students randomly into two groups. The first group read a newspaper article, ostensibly from USA Today, which said that computer scientists continue to embody "geek" stereotypes. The second group read an article which said that those stereotypes no longer apply.

And even though those were fairly short articles, they had an impact, especially among the female subjects. The women who read the article that demolished the "geek" stereotypes were much more likely to agree strongly with the statement, "I have considered majoring in computer science." See for yourself:

Do geek stereotypes keep women out of computer science?

I'm not entirely sure it's a bad thing for women to believe that computer scientists are "geeks" — or that computer scientists like Star Trek. Ideally, what we should be doing is making sure everybody knows that women can like Star Trek too, not promoting the idea that computer scientists don't like Star Trek. (In a previous study, Cheryan and her team showed women two computer science classrooms: one with geek paraphernalia such as a Star Trek poster, one without. Women were more interested in computer science after seeing the more neutral classroom.)

But at the same time, the stereotypes in Big Bang Theory and "special nerd episodes" of police procedural shows go beyond liking Star Trek — and it's encouraging that women who had taken just one computer science class didn't believe the stereotype. This study definitely provides another good reason to be annoyed at the geek stereotypes in mass media, because they're keeping away smart, talented people away from technical fields.

You can read the paper "The Stereotypical Computer Scientist: Gendered Media Representations as a Barrier to Inclusion for Women" in the journal Sex Roles.