Computer 'geekiness' turns off girls

Girls are turned off to computer science by a “geeky” image, research suggests.

(In one experiment) about 40 male and female students entered a small classroom that either contained objects stereotypically associated with computer science, such as Star Trek posters, video game boxes and Coke cans, or non-stereotypical items such as nature posters, art, a dictionary and coffee mugs.

. . . In the geeky environment, women were significantly less interested than men in computer science, while there was no gender difference for the non-stereotypical classroom.

Only 22 percent of computer-science graduates are women, and the female percentage is decreasing.

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  1. Diana Senechal says:

    I don’t know why Star Trek posters, video game boxes, and Coke cans would be considered geeky. To me they are not geeky at all–they are elements of popular culture. Geeks and non-geeks like and dislike them.

    To be geeky is to be involved in something intellectual (or artistic, or otherwise specialized) to the point where you live it a great deal of the time. That’s how I understand the word, anyway.

    I never could get interested in Star Trek, and only once in a while enjoyed a video game, but I have been inspired by computer geeks, especially by their absorption in the intricacies of programming and their enjoyment of it for its own sake.

  2. There seems to be much more concern about making girls/women comfortable and about their need to have proportional representation in various fields than there is about the comfort level and proportional representation of boys/men. Some women/people think it is perfectly acceptable to have quotas and lowered standards for women (and various other URMs) but feel quite differently when the boot is on the other foot. BTW, I have kids of both sexes.

  3. 22%? Pshaw! They should look at engineering majors. Whereas the Comp Sci class my year (1986) had 8 women out of 33 graduates, my Electrical Engineering class for the same year had only 9 women out of 82 total graduates.

  4. I found the story quite interesting. The fact that culture seems to play a large determinant in career choice is not entirely unexpected, although it’s fairly heavily misinformed.

    Probably less than 1 in 10 that work in the computer industry are actually hard-core geeks, as I found out to my amazement and dismay when I worked for a bank services company for a few years. Nobody on an entire floor of programmers understood my Lisp/Perl XKCD cartoon 🙁

    Anyway, I’m not certain what can be done. The (mostly) guys who are hanging around the CS student center *are* more likely to be geeks. After all, where else do you gather a critical mass of like-minded individuals needed for a D&D campaign (at least in my day. With MMORPGs being popular with a huge swath of kids, I’m not certain what interests separate the geeks from the rest of the world nowadays).

    One thing that might be useful is to have a few women from the real world say what the culture they live in is really like, but on the other hand, college/universities don’t usually get involved in career guidance. Maybe something in high schools?

  5. I worked as a computer programmer for a few months (BS in Mathematics), then ended up going to law school. I loved the geeky pop-culture stuff that interested my coworkers (all men), but I just couldn’t take sitting in front of a computer for 8+ hours a day and not having frequent, real conversations with people. My job felt so meaningless to me after a while, so I went to law school! I was an adequate programmer, but I just didn’t get as absorbed in my programming as my male colleagues. I needed more interaction with people than my job entailed. I hate the focus on trying to have equal numbers of female engineers/programmers/scientists because my own experience has convinced me that women, when they can afford to do so, tend to prefer people-oriented occupations for reasons that have little or nothing to with any leftover sexism.

  6. Re Catherine’s point: there are of course lots of jobs that require (or at least benefit from) both programming knowledge *and* people-interaction skills: software team manager or project manager, systems analyst studying user requirements & turning them into specifications, product/marketing manager in a software company, sales support & sometimes actual sales for a software company, etc.

  7. I should think this would be a larger issue for Indian and Chinese women than American women. Who cares? Those jobs are all moving overseas.

  8. I find it funny that everyone seems to suggest that the key is to broaden the awareness of the public with respect to computer science.
    The problem is that by the time that a girl can understand what the heck computer science is, she will most likely already be prejudiced against it.
    The study showed that the girls had a problem with “geekiness,” not necessarily computer science. “Geekiness” is the problem, not a lack of awareness about computer science.
    Go to any school in the country where girls are beginning to admire boys, and I dare say that the dodgeball champ will have a higher social status than the A student.
    Until our society truly celebrates the success of hard working intelligent men, women will still shun computer science and related fields.

  9. Lightly Seasoned, I’m fairly certain that Asian women don’t get told repeatedly through high school and college that they should “find their passion” and do it. They have a different approach to careers – work hard, earn lots of money, be professionally successful.
    Since I didn’t have a “passion” for programming, I ended up developing a distaste for it and chucking the whole field. We young Westerners are a lot more idealistic about attaining deep job satisfaction (I’m in my mid-thirties) than your average college-educated Chinese or Indian woman. I blame our humanities professors. 😉

  10. momof4 – as a woman with an engineering degree, I have noticed some worries amongst humanities and nursing students over the lack of men applying (men are particularly useful in nursing because of a greater upper body strength).
    Whatever – 10% was my experience too, 10 girls out of 110 electrical engineering students.
    Catherine – I had a bit of a similar experience, I was designing a control system in my final year of the degree and realised that I really fundamentally didn’t care about it, and thus wound up taking a knights move to economics (I finished the degree because it was my final year). On the other hand, about 3 years later I went to the wedding of one of my engineering school mates, there were about 10 of us there and only one person, female, was still actually working as an engineer.

  11. In my aerospace engineering class there was, by our junior year, only one girl left in the class. She was a hardcore engineer who loved the field (and had the second-best grades of all of us). All of her friends in aerospace had changed majors, however, most of them because they had never really been passionate about engineering in the first place: their parents and guidance counsellors had pushed them into it. When asked to speak in front of a group of girls touring the campus to encourage them into engineering, she flatly refused on the grounds that such programs had wasted the time of so many of her friends.

    It doesn’t seem impossible that boys and girls might not be exactly alike.

  12. I eagerly await the article detailing all of the cultural changes that pre-veterinary schools will make to “fix” the problem of only 20% male enrollment.

  13. I have read that there is a coming shortage of large-animal vets, both for regular vet practice and for food inspectors. According to the article – and I admit I can’t remember where I saw it – women tend to choose small-animal practices more than men do.

    In medicine, women choose different specialties and different practice arrangements within specialties. Almost 5 years ago, a group of surgeons of various types all reported that the average age in their specialty was over 50. In one specialty, over half the surgeons were over 55 and the retirements were significantly outpacing the replacements from residency programs.

  14. Catherine: I didn’t like programming much either :). It didn’t have much to do with Coke and Star Trek, though — I just don’t sit still well. That’s why I got out of law, too.

    momof4: I’d read about the same shortage (maybe in Practical Horseman), but our area is over-supplied with large animal vets and there are many, many women in equine veterinary practices. The track vets are all women, and the practice I use is owned by a really old guy, but nearly all the younger vets he has working for him are women. It may depend where you are.


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