The Stereotype Threat and How It Affects Women in Computing

women ICTs Computers Stereotypes
Thursday, 28 July, 2011 - 10:40

Society should work towards eliminating all forms of stereotypes that discourage women and girls from venturing into computer science and engineering fields. The author argues that ‘stereotype threat’ and misconceptions of technical careers could drive women away from technical fields

When Dr. Telle Whitney, CEO and President of the Anita Borg Institute, was asked on Fox Business News’ Varney & Company to share why she believes the world needs more women in the field of technology, she said that more women in tech will both create diversity and drive innovation.

Why then, despite the benefits that diversity can bring, do technical fields continue to struggle to recruit and retain women computer scientists and engineers? Why do girls in school and college show less interest than boys in technical subjects? Can we pinpoint this fact to nature or nurture? Research that is being done to explore the reasons why girls and women are less attracted to technical fields than men is resulting in interesting findings about the impact of stereotypes on girls and women’s interest and performance in technical disciplines.

One of the things that recent research has shown is that girls and women’s performance in technical areas is affected simply by knowing about the existence of the stereotype that women aren’t as good as men in technical areas.  This is defined as ‘stereotype threat’. In an interview about his research on the comparison of African-American students’ performance on the SAT to white students’, Claude Steele, professor of social psychology at Stanford, explains stereotype threat as “a situation where a negative stereotype about [a] group could apply. As soon as that’s the case, [they] know that [they] could be judged in terms of that stereotype or treated in terms of it or [they] might inadvertently do something that would confirm the stereotype” (Secrets of the SAT, PBS.org).

A common situation of stereotype threat for girls and women is when they are tested on their knowledge of math or science. The Educational Testing Services performed an experiment to see if girls performed better or worse on a math exam if they were asked their gender either before or after the exam. Researchers found that the group of girls who were asked their gender before the exam scored several points lower than the boys, while girls who were asked their gender after the exam scored on par with the boys.

The results of this study suggest that the girls’ acknowledgement of their gender before the exam triggered their fear of confirming the stereotype, hindering them from performing to their highest capability. People tend to steer away from subjects and areas where they lack confidence. A solution to help girls feel confident in math and sciences is to eliminate the threat. Parents and teachers should remind girls that their performance on any exam is not based on their gender or race, but on how well they studied. Understanding that they have control over how much they study and how well they perform will give them more confidence and ultimately make them feel less threatened by the stereotype. With increased confidence in their math and science skills, more girls may be interested and open to careers in computer science and engineering.

Stereotypes about women’s performance in math and science aren’t the only factors dissuading girls and women from pursuing technical careers; clichéd characterisations of computer scientists and engineers can decrease girls and women’s interest in technical careers. In a lecture on ‘Stereotypes of Computer Scientists and Their Consequences for Women’s Participation’, Dr. Sapna Cheryan suggests that stereotypes about computer scientists and engineers can push women away from technical fields. Dr. Cheryan and her colleagues preformed several studies to see how environments influenced women college students’ interest in computer science.

In one study, college students were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their interest in computer science. One group of students filled out the questionnaire in a room that was termed the stereotypical room for someone with an interest or passion for computer science. In this room, there were Star Trek posters, Sci-Fi books, and stacked soda cans, while the non-stereotypical room had nature posters and neutral books. The women who took the questionnaire in the stereotypical room showed less interest in computer science than the women who took it in the non-stereotypical room. In another study, college students were asked to take a tour of two virtual computer science classrooms and then choose which room they would prefer to take the class. Both virtual classrooms were set up identically, while the objects differed. The stereotypical classroom had computer science posters while the non-stereotypical had nature posters. More women preferred to take the computer science class in the non-stereotypical room than the stereotypical.

From these experiments, Dr. Cheryan concluded that women were less likely to show interest in computer science when the environment was associated with the stereotype. She suggests that if stereotypes influence women’s career choice, then the image of technical careers should be ‘broadened’ - meaning that women should not feel obligated to identify with computer science and engineering stereotypes. Neutral environments may keep students and employees from feeling pressured to have certain interests. Companies may attract more women by building a team with diverse interest, eliminating the pressure to fit or meet a stereotype. A diverse group of women and men in computing would be valuable to the technical world.

Stereotype threat and misperceptions of technical careers have hindered women from entering and remaining in computer science and engineering fields. By making an effort to understand why girls and women are not interested in math and sciences and what obstacles they often face and then taking the next step to solving these problems, we will definitely continue to see an increase in the presence of women in computing.

Chantaell Barker is an intern at Anita Borg Institute. It is republished here with the permission of the author.

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