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Women Put Off Computing Careers By Geeky Environments

March 20 2010 - Recent research led by the University of Washington published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the work environment may be a key factor deterring women from careers in computer science.

Lead author Sapna Cheryan, assistant professor of psychology said:

"When people think of computer science the image that immediately pops into many of their minds is of the computer geek surrounded by such things as computer games, science fiction memorabilia and junk food. That stereotype doesn't appeal to many women who don't like the portrait of masculinity that it evokes."

This helps create what the study refers to as 'ambient belonging' - whether an individual feels comfortable in a particular setting.

Sapna Cheryan explained:

"It is the sense you get right away when you walk into a room. You look at the objects and make an instant appraisal of how you would fit with the objects and the people who are typically found in that environment. You also make a judgment of 'I like it here' or 'I don't belong here.'"

Researchers recruited 250 female and male students who were not studying computer science to study why the proportion of women in this speciality is decreasing while the proportion in other sciences such as biology, mathematics and chemistry is increasing.

In the first of a series of experiments, participants spent several moments in a small classroom that either contained objects stereotypically associated with computer science such as Star Trek posters, video game boxes and Coke cans, or non-stereotypical items such as nature posters, art, a dictionary and coffee mugs. The students were told the room was being shared with another class and to ignore the contents.

Participants then completed questionnaires about their attitude toward computer science. Women exposed to the stereotypical setting expressed less interest in computer science than those who saw the non-stereotypical objects. Men did not demonstrate a similar difference.

Other significant findings included:

  • Female participants were given the choice of joining one of two all-female company teams where the only difference was the objects found in the workroom; 82 per cent chose the team with the non-stereotypical setting.
  • Female and male participants were given the choice of similar jobs at one of two companies with equal gender distribution in their workforces. Both groups preferred the non-stereotypical work environment, but women's preferences were significantly stronger. Women also felt less of a sense of ambient belonging in the stereotypical work environment compared to men.
  • Participants were questioned about their attitudes toward a Web design company and were asked to choose between identical job offers from two such companies. Women were more likely to opt for the non-stereotypical company while men had the opposite preference. The more women perceived the stereotypical environment as masculine, the less interested they were in the company concerned.

"These studies suggest objects such as science fiction books and Star Trek posters communicate whether or not a person belongs in an environment. Instead of trying to change the women who do not relate to the stereotype, our research suggests that changing the image of computer science so that more women feel they fit in the field will go a long way to recruiting them into computer science," said Sapna Cheryan. More and more women are becoming a huge part of the business and tech world.

Sapna Cheryan concluded:

"We want to attract more people to computer science. The stereotype is not as alienating to men as women, but it still affects them as well. A lot of men may also be choosing to not enter the field because of the stereotype. We need to broaden the image of the field so both women and men feel more welcome. In workplaces and universities we can do this by changing the way offices, hallways and labs look. The media can also play a role by updating the image of computer science. It would be nice for computer scientists in movies and television to be typical people, not only computer geeks."

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