Do stereotypes of computer scientists prevent girls from taking up STEM?
When you think of a computer scientist, who do you see in your mind’s eye?
A techno-nerd perhaps?
A pasty, withdrawn male with glasses programming on multiple screens in a room with no windows?
Research by Sapna Cheryan, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, has found that this person is going to conform to some stereotypes: someone ‘geeky’ and intensely focused on computers, someone lacking interpersonal skills and male. Her team found that the computer nerd image actually stops women from pursuing computer science as a career.
Cultural stereotypes impact career choices and so attracting more women into computer science may therefore depend on broadening the image of who belongs in computer science.
The idea that computer scientists are socially isolated young men whose genius is the result of genetics has been shaped by media and especially films and magazines.
Such media depictions may cause students to believe that these characteristics are not only typical but even required of people in the field.
These stereotypes then spill into classrooms which can be a setup as a caricature of computer science and turned into an environment that excludes others.
Science and computer science won’t ever achieve parity and diversity if we are still accepting images like the one below
But, it’s not all one-way traffic. In an attempt to bust the stereotypes of computer science being dominated by males, some very well meaning scientists have tried to redress the imbalance but may have actually made matters worse.
Some have badged themselves as ‘girl geeks’ and there is even an organisation called Girl Geeks which is “committed to inspiring and supporting a strong supply of female scientists, technologists, engineers and innovators to create a legacy of sustainable talent.”
No one can knock the mission to get more girls in STEM – or more inclusively – STEAM but the geek label is spectacularly unhelpful to thousands of girls who have a very negative image of the word ‘geek’.
If we want to look at the causes of and solutions to gender imbalance in STEM then dropping the geek/nerd label has to be a priority.
I hate the word geek. It is being divisive. It is creating labels that are really unhelpful when what we should be aiming for is much more of a renaissance person idea.
Professor Roberts also said in an interview for The Metro five years ago,
There’s been a movement towards reclaiming the word “geek” but I’d rather get away from it entirely. It’s unhelpful to label people. If you say: “It’s cool to be a geek,” where does that leave people who don’t consider themselves to be geeks? Aren’t they allowed to be interested in science? Science is for everyone.
So, there we have it – the Professor of Public Engagement in Science telling us that science is for everyone and to drop the word geek – so why do we have so many people wanting to be girl geeks when this excludes lots of girls who might just be interested in science?