Imagine the most extreme stereotypes about computer scientists: They’re socially awkward indoor kids. They have an obsessive focus on technology and a closet full of rumpled hoodies.
Cultural perceptions about who is a computer scientist or an engineer or a physicist are a big reason why women are still underrepresented in certain science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“The assumptions about what it takes to be a good computer scientist or engineer are very narrow,” said Sapna Cheryan, a UW psychology professor and lead author of a study published this week in the journal Psychological Bulletin.
“If you have narrow stereotypes, then it’s going to end up attracting a more narrow band of people, including a narrow band of men,” she told Mashable.
Cheryan said her research team wanted to understand why some STEM fields had made progress in closing the gender gap, while others remained largely dominated by men.
The researchers analyzed more than 1,200 papers on the topic, with a particular focus on the six STEM fields with the most undergraduate degrees: biology, chemistry and math which have the highest share of female participation and computer science, engineering and physics, which have the widest gender gaps.
“People talk about women’s underrepresentation in STEM overall, but if you look at the data, it’s really more complicated than that,” Cheryan said.
For instance, women earn more than half of U.S. undergraduate degrees in biology, chemistry and math, the National Science Foundation found in a 2014 study. Yet women earn less than 20 percent of degrees in computer science, engineering and physics.
The UW literature review adds to a growing public debate about how schools and companies can encourage more women to pursue STEM fields while also ensuring women have equal opportunities as men to hold leadership positions and advance their research.
The study also comes as the scientific community is slowly opening up about the sexual harassment and abuse that has long plagued male-dominated fields, particularly astronomy.
Mashable previously reported that the rise of blogs and other digital outlets are making it easier for women to communicate more efficiently and powerfully about their experiences with everything from demeaning remarks and inappropriate comments to unwanted sexual conduct.
Cheryan and her research team did not address sexual harassment in their Oct. 12 study, but they did identify the “masculine culture” as one of three key reasons why women are discouraged from participating in computer science, engineering and physics.
Stereotypes about “brogrammers” and computer geeks fall under this umbrella, as do beliefs that women simply aren’t as good as men in these fields. A relative lack of female leaders in the fields, and a dearth of pop culture icons to serve as role models, help to reinforce these oversimplified and inaccurate ideas.
“These assumptions about the fields signal to men that they belong, more than it signals to women they belong there,” Cheryan said in an interview.
Jen Goldbeck, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Maryland, said in her own experience, this masculine environment helps to foster doubt about women’s abilities or intelligence.
“Because there are so few of us, if one woman struggles with something or makes a mistake, some guys will presume that all women are like that (even if there are guys who struggle more),” she told Mashable in an email.
She shared the following XKCD webcomic, which she said speaks to life as a female computer scientist.
“On top of that, many men in CS [computer science] don’t think there is a problem; they think we make things up, read too much into derogatory comments (“it has nothing to do with gender”), or are oversensitive,” Goldbeck added.
“That means no one will tell the offenders to knock it off, and there aren’t a lot of female faculty to turn to.”
“It can be a really exhausting experience, so a lot of smart, talented women find themselves more welcome in math or biology,” she said.
People can only change so much, especially when their society is constraining them
The UW study also found that certain STEM fields have a wider gender gap because of students’ inexperience in those subjects prior to entering college.
Fewer U.S. high school students have experience in computer science, engineering or physics prior to college, which means they largely rely on those masculine stereotypes to shape their understandings of the field.
“If the culture is masculine, and telling you the people who would be good at these fields are men, it will be harder for you to even put that on the table,” Cheryan said.
When it comes to biology, chemistry and math, however, most high schoolers are required to take courses in those areas, giving students an earlier experience of diversity in those fields.
The third reason for the lopsided gender gap, according to the UW study, is that women generally tend to underestimate their abilities in computer science, engineering and physics.
Men, on the other hand, tend to overestimate their skills.
Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has explored this confidence gap in her own research.
In one study, Dasgupta and her colleagues followed 15 entry-level calculus classes during a semester, with seven classes taught by a female professor.
They found that women outperformed men across the board in their final grades. But female students were less confident they would get a good grade, and showed less interest in the class, if their professor was male. Male students were less influenced by their professor’s gender.
“Clearly the ability is not the issue,” Dasgupta said in a campus talk in April that was covered by the Daily Collegian. “Confidence is the issue.” Dasgupta was not involved in the new research.
Cheryan said the UW research shows the need to develop a more inclusive culture in STEM fields, whether by developing “subcultures” that make girls feel they belong or working with professors and students to counteract negative stereotypes about women’s abilities.
The UW professor said this approach differed from the ongoing attempts to simply stoke women’s interest in STEM and draw them into computer sciences or engineering.
“People can only change so much, especially when their society is constraining them,” she said.
“Rather than making women change, it’s more fair and just and better for the field if they have more welcoming cultures.”