Culture, Stereotypes, and Women in Computer Science

12 08 2013

I attended a WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) conference at the University of Washington 6 or 7 years ago.  One of the talks was given by Sapna Cheryan, assistant professor of psychology, and her research assistants.  They had recently begun research to determine if gender stereotypes discourage women from studying computer science.  I was a computer science instructor at the time, so I knew the numbers – women made up 37% of undergraduate degree recipients in computer science in 1985, and the numbers dropped from there to 18% in 2010.  (Statistics derived from the US Department of Labor.)

Ever since hearing them speak I have contemplated one of the things that they said might be a contributor to shrinking numbers of females in computer science – that it was in the mid-eighties when “nerd” movies became popular – Revenge of the Nerds with shallow girls who like the less than brainy football players on one side, and brainy, less than appealing nerd boys on the other.  Could a movie with such obvious stereotypes really reflect our culture?  Wasn’t it an exaggeration?

I looked online and found that Cheryan’s research was published just last month (July 2013) in Sex Roles (  Based on Cheryan’s two studies, it appears that simply being told that the stereotypes are true will discourage young women from studying computer science, but will not alter young men’s choices.

So I contemplate the women in my classes over the years.  I taught college freshman and sophomore computer science classes from 2002 to 2012.  I knew all along that I had many fewer women than men, sometimes 2 women in a class of 30.  But looking back, I am surprised to realize that most of the women were heading towards their second career.  Very few were there as first time college students.  These “older” women, with 10 years invested in family business, or raising kids, or other careers, were driven.  They knew what they wanted and they were seemingly not concerned about stereotypes.  But where were the young ones?  Why would the more mature women be so driven towards this goal, and the younger ones almost completely absent?  Do we raise our children to be so easily swayed by what they think other people think?

Well, in any case, thank heaven for the coolness of the iPhone – young girls, including my 13 year old daughter, are writing apps, and having fun doing it.

Submitted by Pamela Harrison