Posted by: jonkatz | June 22, 2010

Stereotypes, and women in CS

Jonathan Herzog has an interesting post dissecting a study regarding women’s participation in CS. Very roughly, the study showed that women were turned off to computer science by the presence of “stereotypical CS objects” in the room. (See Herzog’s post for much more detail.)

The biggest problem I see with this study is that it assumes the very stereotype it is trying to study. In designing the study, the researchers asked people to list stereotypical objects that computer scientists have in their rooms; there were the usual suspects (Star Trek paraphernalia, comic books, junk food, …). These objects were then used unquestioningly in the study. I don’t see how this proves anything. When was the last time you saw a Star Trek poster or comics anywhere? (And when did you ever see it in a classroom or CS lab?) Lots of people play video games or eat junk food, and, conversely, I know lots of computer scientists who eat healthy food and exercise. And if technical manuals and computer parts are scaring people away from CS, um, exactly what are we supposed to do about that? (Will we change the way chemistry is done if we find that women don’t like working with solvents?)

If anything, the study shows that we must work at changing the perception of computer scientists, rather than changing anything about the field itself.



  1. Huh. For some reason, I didn’t get a track-back from your linkage, and so didn’t see that you made this a post of its own here. (For others: Jon also left this as a comment on my blog.) So, thanks for the mention, but my actual reply is already posted as a response to your comment.

    But to summarize here: I think that you mis-characterize the study in question. No, it did not use actual or representative CS environments. And so, no, it does not (directly) explain the actual gender ratio of our field. But that was not its goal. Its goal was to demonstrate the phenomenon of ‘ambient belonging,’ and to do that, the experimenters used what were essentially ‘laboratory conditions.’

    So, does the paper still have relevance to actual CS? Yes, of course. But to find it, we need to understand the paper on its own terms first. The paper didn’t show that Star Trek posters were magical, but that masculine environments negatively affect the interest of women (as a population). So the paper has relevance to real, live CS department to the extent that their undergraduate labs and lounges read as masculine environments. And you and I, Jon, being males in Computer Science, might not be the best people to judge that.

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