Why there are so few women in computer science has been a matter of some mystery since the days of side ponytails and dial-up. Strangely, the gender gap is even wider today than it was in the early 90s, with women making up a measly 10 percent of undergrad computer science and engineering students.
A new study from the University of Washington and UC Berkeley, published in the research journal Sex Roles this month, puts part of the blame on the negative stereotype of the computer nerd in the media and pop culture. Curiously, the paper places specifc blame on the TV show The Big Bang Theory.
The theory is, cultural stereotypes of the antisocial, pale, desperate, sci-fi obsessed, videogame-addicted hacker is unappealing to women's feminine sensitivities, and that's why girls don't study computer science.
To say this is an oversimplification would be an understatement, but the study calls attention to two problems in society worth thinking about. One, the questionable assumption that women don't like nerd culture, and two, the fact that the computer geek archetype is totally out of date.
Let's take number two first. According to the report, both sexes settled on the stereotypical computer scientist as "a genius male computer hacker who spends a great deal of time alone on the computer, has an inadequate social life, and enjoys hobbies involving science fiction."
That image was formed back in the ‘80s when computers were still a novelty. According to the study, pop culture depictions in movies like Revenge of the Nerds “coincided with the beginning of the decline in the proportion of women pursuing computer science in the U.S.” The stereotype stuck around a while—Hackers, CSI—and is now being kept alive by The Big Bang Theory, the most-watched comedy show in the country, despite being hated-on for blatant sexism.
A lot has changed in the tech world in the last two decades. Nerdy is cool now. Computers are awesome. CBS is perpetuating a stereotype that is ceasing to exist. Case in point, women in the study who had taken just one computer science class reported they didn’t believe the aforementioned stereotypes.
Which brings us to the more salient problem, point one. An io9 blog post hits it on the head: "What we should be doing is making sure everybody knows that women can like Star Trek too, not promoting the idea that computer scientists don't like Star Trek."
In the strangest part of the study's abstract, researchers write that "computer scientists were perceived as having traits that are incompatible with the female gender role, such as lacking interpersonal skills and being singularly focused on computers."
The "female gender role?" What is that even? Isn't that itself a stereotype? Who decided it’s inherently social, prone to wide-ranging interests, none of which are computers?
Admittedly, to a certain extent, science decided. Studies have found that women are just chromosomally prone to be disinterested in STEM careers, and besides it would be erroneous to assume that both sexes should, as a whole, act in similar patterns.
But it's not as simple as nature over nurture. Biology aside, the cultural factors can’t be dismissed. In the study, women who were exposed to a non-stereotypical description of a computer scientist had an increased interest in pursuing the career. I guess less Sheldon Coopers and more Mark Zuckerbergs (or rather, Jesse Eisenberg's version of Zuckerberg) can't hurt.