Why do women make up only 18 percent of the computer science majors at colleges and universities? And what can be done to increase their numbers?
These questions drove researchers at the University of Washington to look at how gender stereotypes prevent many young women from entering this male-dominated field. Over the course of two studies, researchers discovered some surprisingly simple solutions to bridging this gender gap.
Something as basic as how a room is decorated can influence decisions. This is what Dr. Sapna Cheryan, an associate psychology professor at the UW, found to be the case.
In one study, she brought hundreds of young women into a classroom decorated with Star Trek posters, science fiction books and old computers stacked in corners. In this room, she had the women fill out a survey to determine how interested they were in majoring in computer science.
“What we found is that women were sitting in the room with the stereotypes exposed, the Star Trek stuff and the science fiction, they expressed they were less interested in pursuing computer science than when they were sitting in the room that didn’t fit the stereotypes,” Cheryan said.
Cheryan is the co-author of two studies that looked at how young women are influenced by the stereotype that they aren’t as smart as men when it comes to math and science. She said this perception is ingrained as early as the second grade. It’s not even anything adults are saying, Cheryan said; just look at kids’ toys and clothes.
“The sciency things go with boys. You don’t see many dinosaurs or rocket ships on girls’ clothes or toys," she said.
This might explain why the two UW studies found young women are more likely to enter the fields of computer science and engineering if the learning environments are gender neutral. One of the studies also found that another way to make young women feel more welcomed is by having more women teaching computer science classes. Yet another strategy that appears to work is having more women give school tours of computer science programs to prospective female students.
The UW has implemented some of these changes. Today, 30 percent of its undergraduate computer science majors are women — almost double the national average.