Computer Sciences to Abandon Nerd Image and Talk to Girls


Is this your dream work environment? Click the image to see more pics of this Tokyo home office. (Danny Choo/Creative Commons License)

This week I wrote an article for Discovery News on how stereotypically nerdy environments turn prospective female students away from the field of computer science.

You know the kind of environment I'm talking about: "Star Trek" posters on the walls, scantily clad anime figurines sexing up the desk space and random video game boxes, empty Coke cans and Funion bags littering the corners of a room with nary a gleam of natural lighting in sight.

As covered in the article, a recent psychology study from the University of Washington (UW) experimented with how noncomputer science majors reacted to the sort of environments that reinforced media portrayals of uber-nerdy male computer scientists. The study found that female students felt excluded and turned off.

The experiment dealt with the idea of ambient belonging, the feeling of fitting in (or not) a person gets when entering an environment. If you have a desk job or your own office, you've likely arranged it in a way to appeal to your personal sensibilities. I feel at home with my desk's Mütter Museum calendar, Gamera action figure and Gerald Brom fantasy art print. My fellow blogger Sarah Dowdey's desk, on the other hand, boasts a Henri Rousseau print and a plant potter shaped like a sheep. I seriously doubt either of us would be comfortable switching desk environments.

The UW study advocates tweaking certain environments so as to attract more computer-science students who don't feel at home under the looming glare of a "Blade Runner" poster. It's like if HowStuffWorks.com's editorial department was mostly Robert Lambs and we wanted to hire more Sarah Dowdeys. In such an instance, we might ask all the Roberts to scale back on the medical oddity calendars.

The inevitable question, however, is how would such changes affect current computer scientists that actually feel comfortable in a nerdy environment? I asked the same thing of both UW Assistant psychology professor Sapna Cheryan and Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial. Their full answers didn't make it into the article, so here they are:

RL: Do you think efforts to alter décor and physical environments could alienate current computer scientists? Sapna Cheryan: Good question. We don't know the answer to that yet because we have only tested those who have not already selected the field. I do think that this question needs to be addressed so that we know how potential interventions may affect those already in the field. It's possible that people in the field may welcome a broader image of computer science so that they aren't always typecast as nerds. But it's also possible that the image is what attracted some of them into the field in the first place, and changing it might be seen as problematic for those who are already in the field. Mark Guzdial: It's all in how it's done. No, changing the physical environment won't alienate computer scientists, but forcing change would alienate anyone. If you told any worker (from office worker to auto mechanic) that they cannot have any control over their physical environment, there will be alienation. It's reasonable, however, to make policy and recommendations, and inform workers of the rationale for the changes. For example, sexist posters have disappeared from much of formerly male-dominated American workplaces, because it was the right thing to do. There may be grumbling, but bringing workers in on the decisions and policy-making can prevent alienation. RL: In reading this study, I'm reminded of various TV shows and movies in which one of the popular kids helps the male nerd clean up and conform so as to win the heart of a female crush. Is this essentially the argument here? That if computer science, as a field, wants to hang with the cool kids, then it needs to trade in the Star Wars figurines for something a little more mainstream? Sapna Cheryan: I would actually advocate that broadening the image is preferable to kicking out one image and replacing it with another. So rather than trading in one image for another image, make computer science a place where all types of people can fit in and thrive.

You can read Cheryan's full article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. You can also find out about Guzdial's efforts with "Georgia Computes!" to broaden the state's K-12 participation in computer science programs right here.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.