There's been some talk and discussion going around the CS department about an article published last month, which discovers that gee, the nerdy "coder boy recluse" stereotype is unattractive to women, and it suggests that this may be a primary reason why women are not pursuing computer science.
The Daily published an interesting follow-up article today featuring responses from our department chair and a few lovely CSE undergrads, saying basically that, a) no kidding and b) our CSE building is nothing like the stereotypical environment and still we have problems overcoming the stereotype.
I agree with everything they've said, but I have a much more negative response to the study: the "Star Trek" stereotype is not even close to core of the problem with recruiting women in CSE, and it's incredibly insulting to treat it as such.
I mean, really? You really think that UW undergrad women on the whole are petty enough to dismiss a fulfilling, lucrative career choice because we think the surroundings won't be pretty and comfortable enough? Because we get the "feeling that we don't fit in" here, that the department is full of gross smelly boys so we aren't willing to get over it?
Not only is this insulting, but it goes against everything I've observed about pettiness in this area. If we're going to talk purely on a superficial level, then I would say most women (and men, for that matter) LOVE defying the stereotype. There's a certain glamor to it; many young CS undergrads relish in being different and looking pretty and clean and untouchable to their nerdier, socially inept counterparts. More often than not I see women receiving a boost in confidence (or ego, depending on your cynicism) after joining the department because — to be frank to the point of controversy — even if they might be considered only "average" in looks, social skills, etc. in most other settings, average is in some ways above and beyond the expected for CSE.
Of course, I remind you that this is talking purely on a superficial level. Which is purely the level on which this study makes claims.
What's hilarious to me is that the lead author of the study, Sapna Cheryan, notes that the math department has about 50% female math majors and asks, "Why are [women] 50 percent of math majors and only 20 percent of computer science?"
Well, right. There are 50% women math majors, and math has a "geek stereotype" so prevalent that it's cliche. You can't cite this statistic and say, "whoa see, computer science is weird" then point to a characteristic that is apparent in both math and computer science (i.e. girls think the field contains nerds) as a reason why computer science is lacking in women.
So what is the problem? Why do we have a shortage of women in computer science? I don't have the answers to this, but I have a lot of speculation. And it's a difficult problem, not one that can be solved by introducing more gender-friendly posters into a computer lab.
I think image is certainly a problem, but not the coke cans and scifi posters. One image problem is that people don't know what computer science is, and one of the huge reasons for this is our K-12 system. From my understanding, computer science education in K-12 is a mess. Many schools don't offer any CS courses, and many of the schools that do offer CS have terrible curriculum then teach their terrible curriculum terribly. If we could show our students in grade schools and high schools that computer science is a fun, engaging, and creative pursuit, we would increase our enrollment of women and men at the college level, guaranteed. There are some heroes working to make this happen, but it's a really, really difficult problem whenever you try to fix the bureaucratic mess that is K-12 in America.
Another issue — this one perhaps more traditionally associated with women — is confidence in technical skills and intimidation by those who live permanently on their linux terminal. There is a HUGE problem with women thinking they are "not good enough" to be in this major. I taught CSE 142 over the summer, and a female student who got a 3.8 in the course (mean grade was 2.74, median 3.0) was telling me how she was really worried about the next course and unsure of whether to continue.
Even when girls are in the major, there are just anecdotes after anecdotes after anecdotes of women who have better transcripts and resumes than their male counterparts, but have the perception that they everyone else knows so much more than them. Because of this they don't bother seeking out internships (or get discouraged quickly if one company rejects them), then because they don't have internships they don't get the on-the-job skills, then by the time they graduate they no longer have resumes on the same competitive level as maybe some of the males do.
I could go on and on. There are certainly problems with female interest in computer science, and certainly a large part of this is a problem with perception. But it's not "environment, environment, environment", and it disgusts me that one can actually get funding to conduct and publish studies based on such shallow and unoriginal hypotheses.