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Archive for December, 2009

Credit: Sapna Cheryan

Back in February I wrote a feature story about research by Sapna Cheryan at the University of Washington suggesting that the geeky stereotype of computer science could be keeping women out of the field.

The basic idea is that people can tell whether they’d fit in a given environment–a club, an office, a stranger’s home–based only on the stuff they find lying around. Severely geeky stuff (the study singles out Star Trek memorabilia, comic books and energy drinks as examples) calls up the image of computer scientists as nerds with no social skills who have better things to do than shower, and makes the majority of girls (and significant numbers of boys) think, “I wouldn’t like it here. I’d better go somewhere else.”

Cheryan tested the theory by putting students in either a geekily-decorated room or a neutrally-decorated room, and asking them how interested they were in computer science. Women reported way less interest when they’d spent time in the geek room. The study has been through several different incarnations, but every time, women steer away from the geeky environment.

It’s a pretty bold claim, and bound to anger some people. My first reaction (and I know I’m not the only one) was something along the lines of, “Wait a sec, I’m pretty feminine, and I’m a gigantic nerd. Are you saying geeky and femme-y are mutually exclusive?” Well, no, Cheryan says–it’s just that the only women who are ending up in traditionally geeky fields already identify with geekiness. Plenty of technically-minded people might enjoy coding but don’t want to join geek culture, and that ought to be allowed.

My feature was published online in August, along with a video and a podcast, but the actual peer-reviewed research paper wasn’t published until this month. That meant I got to write it up again as a news story for Science News, which was fun. But it also meant a flurry of stories from reporters and bloggers who clearly didn’t read the paper.

The most egregious offender is io9, which is like Gawker for science fiction. The first clue that they didn’t do their homework is here:

Add to that the loads of biases that seem to have been jammed into this study (like the idea that liking science fiction is “masculine” and science-fiction toys are automatically a boys-only thing) that it’s hard to take it seriously.

A look through the paper makes it clear that whatever biases crept into the study came from the subjects, not the researchers. Cheryan and her colleagues asked a group of undergrads to generate a list of things they associated with computer science, and then asked a different group of undergrads to rate each object on that list on how computer science-y they found them. Only the objects that got high enough geek ratings made it into the room.

Then Cheryan et al asked the subjects in the actual study–another group of undergrads, at a different university–to rate the objects on how masculine they found them, as well as how much they associated the objects with computer science and with themselves. None of this stuff is researcher bias–it’s genuine cultural bias.

But my bigger complaint is their assertion that “women who are interested in computer science will be, ipso facto, geeks, and that means they’ll be interested in geeky stuff.” That’s exactly the point. The entrance fee to a computer science career is membership in geek culture, and that’s way too restrictive. If any other field had a cultural barrier to entry like that, no one would stand for it.

The writers at io9 don’t seem to care that they’re excluding non-geeks–“Do you really want to attract English majors to computer science?” Comments on my feature when it showed up on Hacker News two weeks ago took a similar tone, worrying that letting in non-geeks would degrade the quality of the code, or mean less code gets written. “Socially mainstream means leaving work at 5pm and going to the pub, that’s what “normal” people do,” says one commenter.

Honestly, I fail to see how this sort of argument differs from asserting that black people are lazy or Latinos are stupid.

And this attitude means that not only are non-geeks missing out on tech careers, the tech industry is missing out on a diversity of ideas and perspectives.

That’s not just a women’s issue. That hurts everyone.

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