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Jun 26, 2013 11:28 AM EDT

More Women Pick Computer Science if Media Nix Outdated ‘Nerd’ Stereotype

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Parents and teachers like to tell children they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. But are there inaccurate stereotypes in the media that nudge them away from certain careers?

University of Washington psychologist Sapna Cheryan wanted to know if gendered stereotypes had any effect on young women's interest in becoming computer scientists. Specifically, she and colleagues studied whether the stereotypical view of the geeky male nerd so often portrayed in the media, most recently in CBS's "The Big Bang Theory," discouraged women from pursuing computer science degrees.

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"These stereotypes are inconsistent with the female gender role, the qualities that are considered appropriate for women," said Cheryan, a UW assistant professor of psychology. "It's inconsistent with how many women see themselves and how they want others to see them."

Science, technology, engineering and math - the so-called STEM careers - are receiving a big educational push these days, yet women remain underrepresented in many of them, especially computer science. The question is: Are women just not interested in that field of work, or is something else keeping them away?

So, Cheryan and colleagues conducted two studies. First, they asked undergraduates from the UW and Stanford University to describe computer science majors.

They found students who were not computer science majors believed computer scientists to be intelligent but with poor social skills; they also perceived them as liking science fiction and spending hours playing video games. Some participants went so far as to describe computer scientists as thin, pale (from being inside all the time), and having poor hygiene.

"We were surprised to see the extent to which students were willing to say stereotypical things, and give us very specific descriptions. One student said computer science majors play 'World of Warcraft' all day long. And that's a very specific, and inaccurate, thing to say about a very large group of people," Cheryan said.

However, women who had taken at least one computer science class were less likely to mention a stereotypical characteristic. There was no difference in men's descriptions, whether or not they had taken a computer science class.

In a second study, researchers asked male and female participants to read fabricated newspaper articles. One article claimed that computer science majors no longer fit those stereotypes, while the other article claimed they actually do reflect those stereotypes. The articles were identical except when claiming the field did - or did not - reflect the stereotypes. Students then rated their interest in computer science.

Men were unaffected by how computer science majors were represented, but women who read the article with non-stereotypical images were significantly more interested in majoring in computer science than women who read the article with gendered stereotypes.

"It doesn't take much to change these stereotypes. We gave them a very short article, and we were able to shift their thinking about computer science," Cheryan said of the female participants.

"Our message is not that the people in computer science need to change. It's a marketing issue. When students think of computer science, they think of all these stereotypes that are not accurate. If we could expose students to what computer scientists are really like and all the varied and interesting things they do, we can have a positive effect on participation in the field."

Cheryan's research is published online in Sex Roles. Co-authors are Caitlin Handron from the UW, and Victoria C. Plaut and Lauren Hudson from the University of California, Berkeley.

Provided by University of Washington

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