Are All Women In Computer Science Nerds?

by Nathalie O'Neill

Pale, thin, awkward, plays World of Warcraft all day. According to a new study from the University of Washington, this is how many of us perceive computer scientists. Blame The Big Bang Theory? Well, the folks behind this research do. Psychologist Sapna Cheryan, leader of the study, found that the negative media portrayal of scientists as nerds discourages women from pursuing a career in computer science.

Cheryan's team first asked participants, both male and female, to give a description of computer scientists. They were described as smart people with poor social skills. And, like true Big Bang folks, computer scientists were supposed to like video games and science fiction. Computer scientists themselves are aware of these stereotypes.

When I asked Lakshmi Nair Vikraman, a computer science student at Columbia working toward a Ph.D, about the popular image, her own vision didn't stray too far: "Someone hooked to his laptop, coding away day and night or playing video games, who can only get tanned (if at all) via the light from the computer screen." Well, at least she has a sense of humor about it.

Researchers then presented each half of the group with a different article. The first article argued that people in computer science fit the nerd stereotype, while the second said computer scientists broke the nerdy mold. Although men who read either article expressed the same desire to go into computer science, the number of women who expressed an interest in the field was much higher in the group who read the second article.

Whatever the reasons may be, a woman who undertakes a career in computer science is still likely to elicit some raised eyebrows. "Most people feel it is an unlikely career path for a woman," Vikraman explains.

Cheryan chalks it up to marketing. Women, who are apparently less likely to aspire to pale sci-fi awkwardness, need to be encouraged to consider becoming computer scientists through a more positive message. “It doesn’t take much to change these stereotypes. We gave them a very short article, and we were able to shift their thinking about computer science,” Cheryan explained. Vikraman agrees that it's about changing young women's perceptions. "The changes have to come from the root—encouragement from your immediate family and friends, giving [you] a sense of confidence to at least give it an honest shot," she says.

That's some coding we could all use.