New research is discovering that the “ambient environment,” the passive context in which activities and decisions occur, can have a big impact. In a paper by psychologist Sapna Cheryan and three colleagues, they recount how the ambient environment affected men’s and women’s interest in majoring in computer science and their sense that they were capable of doing so.
To test this, they invited some of the respondents into a neutral room, while others entered a room covered in “computer geeky” things: a Star Trek poster, comic books, video game boxes, empty soda cans and junk food, technical magazines, and computer software and hardware. (Don’t kill the messenger; these were items that other college students had agreed were typical of a “computer science geek.”)
Cheryan and colleagues found that men (the dark bars in the graph below) were unfazed by the geekery (they were slightly more likely to be interested if the environment was stereotypical, but the difference is within the margin of error). Women who encountered the geeked up room, however, were much less likely to say that they were considering a computer science major (the light bars).
This research is a great example of the ubiquitousness of the cues that tell us what types of interests, careers, hobbies, and activities are appropriate to us. Our ambient environment is rich with information about whether we belong. And that stuff matters.
Source: Cheryan, Sapna, Victoria Plaut, Paul Davies, and Claude Steele. 2009. Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97, 6: 1045-1060.
Maitri — July 22, 2013
Nothing about that environment is gender-specific to me, given I made and grew up with one similar to it. And I say this as a heterosexual woman currently wearing lipstick and heels.
GKK — July 22, 2013
Huh. Since Star Trek (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, etc) fandoms are very female-friendly and include a lot of women, I would speculate that this has squat to do with Star Trek scaring women (even if the reboot is, unfortunately, going sexist) but with women having been socialized to be more responsive to the social stigma associated with being a geek, or social stigma in general.
Japaniard — July 22, 2013
"Our ambient environment is rich with information about whether we belong. And that stuff matters."
But apparently it only matters to women. Nothing about the stereotypical room was gendered as male (unless the comic books/video games in question happened to particularly emphasize the male gaze cheesecake aspect that may be present in those media, though there is no indication that this is the case) yet for some reason it was unappealing to the women. The common thread in the stereotypical room was that it gave cues to geeky and non-mainstream interests.
This research seems to show that women are more put off by the concept of being classified as an "other", as a geek that doesn't fit in with the mainstream, when compared to their male counterparts.
Maitri — July 22, 2013
GKK: "women having been socialized to be more responsive to the social stigma
associated with being a geek, or social stigma in general."
Exactly. This preconditioning comes with prior preconditioning. My parents and larger society didn't tell me I had to have long hair, wear pink or play with dolls (they told me I had to be fair, but that's another matter), which then had to be broken in order to get into sci-fi and gadgets.
Sursulapitschi — July 22, 2013
I'm pretty sure that the "geek stuff" wouldn't affect me much, the empty soda cans and junk food on the other hand...including things in the room that are generally associated with dirt and neglect seems like a bad choice to me.
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Larry Charles Wilson — July 22, 2013
You are only affected by to what you pay attention.
Alex Odell — July 22, 2013
I would say it has more to do with the fact that Star Trek doesn't have many good female characters to identify with, and if there are, they're side-lined. Especially in the new Star Trek reboot. But even the Next Generation had problems with their female characters - they either had a few lines, or they focused on Troi, who's cheesecake dialogue and over-stereotyped character made it hard to take her seriously. Deep Space Nine and Voyager better in terms of female characters.
Leslee Bottomley Beldotti — July 22, 2013
As a middle-aged (i.e. over 45) woman who is deeply passionate about all things tech - especially video games and computers - I have NO female friends with which I can share my interests. It's very isolating and lonely at times.
I think this research may speak to that issue is some obtuse ways.
Elena — July 22, 2013
Well, it's Picard after all. Based from my experience on Tumblr, it would be different if they had put up posters with Zachary Quinto or Benedict Cumberbatch. :P
(Seriously, people go to see the Star Trek movies. They're *mainstream* movies. A trekkie would be one who collects empty toy cardboard boxes from the 60s. And before you ask, I *have* met such a guy in the comics store)
Mikel — July 22, 2013
Girls can be geeks, too. But then, I loved Star Trek TNG long before anyone told me girls don't like Science Fiction.
Alison — July 22, 2013
So does this graph say that in the nonstereotypical room, women were significantly more interested in computer science than men? Interesting if so.
Although, we're discussing why women don't major in computer science, it might be worth throwing in a few statistics about what % of comp sci majors are women, just so we can get some background.
I also think the title of this post is unnecessarily demeaning, even if intended ironically, but that's just my two cents.
Frances J. — July 22, 2013
This doesn't seem very well studied. A Star Trek poster might not put me off, but the soda cans and junk food certainly wouldn't make me feel comfortable there. Do you know what that would say to me? "We don't clean up after ourselves," and that they might expect me to do it.
The video game boxes and comic books would also matter in my impression of the room. Probably, I would not want to devote four years of my life to studying with a bunch of dudebros who play Grand Theft Auto.
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WellYesYouMay — July 23, 2013
The fact that this music video on the visibility of geek girls came out today is very fitting. http://www.themarysue.com/doubleclicks-nothing-to-prove/
Molly Olson — July 23, 2013
I interpreted this situation by remembering how reticent I am to talk about my "geeky" interests with men who demonstrate geeky interests-- for the fear that they will view me as not geeky enough/a "fake geek girl." That could be another factor in these women's responses. Having your interests and identity challenged can definitely alter a person's honesty or belief in their competency.
Gman E. Willikers — July 24, 2013
There's a huge tension running both ways between male geek culture and feminism. Male geeks, in general, perceive women geeks to be feminists spoiling for a fight. None of this may have a grounding in reality, but as usual, perception trumps reality as it informs subsequent action.
Maria Rusert — July 24, 2013
The 'geeky' room looks unprofessional to me. If I'm looking for a major, I want one where I think I could learn something and get a job from it. Junk food and items that imply that a lot of playing around goes on could indicate an environment where learning and job futures are not prioritized.
I know I worry about safety and if I'll be able to get a job in a field-- if I already know it's a 'man's field', and then I see indicators that all they do is play, I can guess that I'm not going to be taken seriously and I may have trouble finding a job if I'm a woman-- even if I am very interested in these geeky things being displayed. This is, of course, extrapolation based on my thought processes, not a study. But I think there are problems with this study and that it doesn't look controlled in the least.
Guest — July 24, 2013
I think the results would have been more telling if they have included a tidy geeky room and a messy neutral room.
Lyn — July 24, 2013
I think the results would have been clearer if they had included a tidy geeky room and a messy neutral room. Are women more repelled than men by geek culture or by messes? Or both?
SociologicalMe — July 24, 2013
I wish they hadn't picked a poster that looks like Picard is trying to make your head explode using only the power of his stare.
Elizabeth Jaggers — July 25, 2013
Who wouldn't be turned off by EMPTY SODA CANS AND JUNK FOOD?
MadHatter — July 25, 2013
They can't say it's Star Trek or "geekery" over the general disgustingness of empty soda cans and pizza boxes. Very sloppy assumptions there.
Opvoeding nekt ambitie van vrouwen | De Zesde Clan — July 29, 2013
[...] waar ze informatie opdoen, eruit ziet als het hol van een nerd. Want nerds zijn (blanke) mannen, dus hoor je daar als vrouw niet bij, dus ben je minder geschikt voor zo’n studie en dus kies je dat vak [...]
Jen — August 27, 2013
Patrick Stewart would make this woman much MORE likely to feel welcome in the room. The rubbish lying everywhere, on the other hand....