In order to tighten the gender gap in certain male-dominated science, technology, engineering and math fields, educators must develop a more inviting culture, according to a study published in the October issue of Psychological Bulletin.
The study, “Why Are Some STEM Fields More Gender Balanced Than Others?” draws on previous works on STEM gender gaps to account for the specific gap in computer science, engineering and physics fields.
The study’s authors, University of Washington’s Sapna Cheryan, Lily Jiang and Sianna Ziegler and Ohio State’s Amanda Montoya, knew that more boys preferred these fields than girls, but wanted to understand why. Previous research, they say, tried to write the gender gap off as individual preferences and abilities, factors they found to be insignificant.
While the number of women in biology, chemistry and math have increased in recent years, the gap has widened in computer science and persists in engineering and physics fields. Echoed by the 2016 U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, the research reveals that the academic culture of these fields is more masculine, which deters high school girls from enrolling in the often-optional courses.
An overwhelmingly masculine environment is one that conveys a stronger sense of belonging for males and increases the interest, participation and performance of boys to the detriment of girls, according to Cheryan.
The study defines masculine culture as an environment that fosters “stereotypes of the field that are incompatible with the way that many women see themselves, negative stereotypes and perceived bias, and few role models for women.”
The stereotypical image of a computer scientist, engineer or physicist doesn’t line up with how many girls see themselves or their interests, the report says. These factors contribute to why women and girls don’t feel comfortable in some STEM fields.
Cheryan says when she was in high school in the 1990s, a friend warned her that a mandatory computer science class was extremely difficult and that only boys who were gamers and coded for fun were successful in the course.
“We already had strong stereotypes of computer scientists being those boys – I guess now you’d call them hackers – the stereotype that they like science fiction and are a little socially awkward,” she says. “There was nothing that made us girls feel like we were welcome. Many of us got As in the class, but many of the girls said they didn’t feel like there was a place for us in that field.”
When Cheryan returned for a 20-year high school reunion, she noticed that of her small class, about half of the men worked in computer science, but only one of the women did.
“We’re still using science, we’re just not doing it in the fields that are the most lucrative and most high status,” she said. “But if you can be a doctor, you can be a computer scientist.”
While the gender gap in STEM has received more attention in recent years, the “boys’ club” image of many of the fields still exists. In 1984, 37 percent of computer science majors were women, but by 2014 that number had dropped to 18 percent, according to a recent study from Accenture and Girls Who Code. To combat the decline, educators must encourage girls to pursue computer science in middle and high school, according to the study.
TechGirlz, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit dedicated to reducing the gender gap in technology fields, focuses specifically on fostering middle school girls’ interest in the sector. Founder Tracey Welson-Rossman says the environment is often less welcoming for girls and isn’t tailored to meet their interests. Girls become more interested when they feel a sense of community and have female role models in the technology sphere, she says.
“The anecdotal actually does match up to what research is showing,” Welson-Rossman says. “One, there’s not a lot of classes [available], two, it’s not interesting to the girls, the way that it’s being taught. And we hear this again and again and again that it’s boring, that they’re the only girls in the class.”
According to Cheryan, pop culture jokes and classroom decorations have an affect on who is interested in a course. The study reveals that when high school classrooms were either decorated with “Star Trek” posters and video games or not decorated at all, girls were less interested than boys in taking the course. Girls’ interest only matched boys’ when posters of art and nature replace what the study calls “geeky” decor, but boys’ interest was not negatively impacted by the classroom environment.
Cheryan and her team also had computer science majors present themselves in a stereotypically “nerdy” way, wearing “I code therefore I am” shirts and referencing a science TV show and then again wearing plain clothes and referencing “The Office.” Girls expressed more interest in computer science upon their interactions with the non-stereotypical coder.
That isn’t to say all girls are turned off by “geek culture,” or that all boys are attracted to it. Balancing traditionally masculine and feminine decorations and references simply helps narrow the gap between the genders and promote a more inclusive environment, the study found.
“It’s not that every man and every woman can relate to the stereotype,” Cheryan says. “And it’s not that the stereotype is bad; there are just more women who think, ‘It’s just not me and it doesn’t reflect my values and my interests.'”
Welson-Rossman says the actual coursework in technology classes needs to change to better fit girls’ interests as well. Girls prefer learning about technology to solve real-world problems rather than more general, theory-based learning about technology.
TechGirlz runs free workshops aimed at broadening girls’ views of technology. Workshop instructors complete hands-on projects with middle school-age girls and show them how technology can be applied to nearly every profession. After each session, Welson-Rossman says about 80 percent of attendees say they are more open to pursuing a career in technology.
“How are we getting them interested in the get-go and how are we retaining that interest?” Welson-Rossman says. “We believe if we keep presenting it the way it’s being presented in the schools, that it’s just not going to be how they want to learn. We want to ignite a love of technology in these middle school girls.”
At the University of Washington, the computer science department has tried to create a more gender-inclusive environment over the last 10 years and has seen a boost in the number of women earning computer science degrees. In 2013, 29 percent of those degrees were granted to women – almost twice the national average.
Other factors that contribute to the gender gap in computer science, engineering and physics are the insufficient early experience provided to girls in middle and high school, the lack of role models and a difference in self-efficacy between men and women.
“Really what I’m trying to do is not say we need to kick the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ boys out or make them do worse,” Cheryan says. “We need to broaden the image of the field, and make it more accessible, and say you can be that or you can interested in art or something else.”