Study: Women avoid computer science careers because they think ‘nerds’ are smelly and pale

nerd-bigstock_Extreme_Computer_Nerd_1520708Blame “The Big Bang Theory” for the lack of women in tech.

That’s the conclusion from new research out of the University of Washington, which found that women don’t choose careers in computer science because of the “nerd” stereotype in the media.

UW psychologist Sapna Cheryan ran two studies to find out if the lack of women in tech was due to their disinterest in the topic, or other reasons. First, she asked 254 non-computer science college students to describe CSE majors. They were perceived to be “incompatible with the female gender role, such as lacking interpersonal skills and being singularly focused on computers.” Some even said that geeks were smelly, pale and thin — they clearly haven’t read this article.

In the second study, students were given two fabricated news articles — one described computer scientists as stereotypically nerdy, while the other did not. The results: Women that read the article about the “cool” geeks showed more interest in computer science afterward than those who read about stereotypical “nerds.” Men, on the otherhand, were not affected either way.

UniversityofWashington“Taken together, these studies suggest that stereotypes of academic fields influence who chooses to participate in these fields, and that recruiting efforts to draw more women into computer science would benefit from media efforts that alter how computer scientists are depicted,” the study found.

So basically, more women would get into tech if Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were muscular, tan and donned fantastic cologne? Cheryan says no.

“Our message is not that the people in computer science need to change,” she said here. “It’s a marketing issue. When students think of computer science, they think of all these stereotypes that are not accurate. If we could expose students to what computer scientists are really like and all the varied and interesting things they do, we can have a positive effect on participation in the field.”

The tech and startup industry is certainly dominated by men. However, there are definitely some notable female entrepreneurs in the Seattle area: Julie Sandler at Madrona Venture Group, Mary Jesse at Ivy, Liz Pearce at LiquidPlanner, Jane Park at Julep and Christina Lomasney at Modumetal, just to name a few.

Participants at the Startup Weekend Women's Edition. Photo: Kyle Kesterson

Participants at the Startup Weekend Women’s Edition. Photo: Kyle Kesterson

The picture to the right is from Startup Weekend Women’s Edition, an event hosted last summer by Sandler and Shauna Causey of Decide.com. It marked the first time that a female-oriented hackathon was held in Seattle. Of the 90 participants, 75 percent were women.

Most of the women said that they were inspired by the event, saying that they would participate at future Startup Weekends. Adriana Moscatelli, a user experience designer who led the gaming upstart Pink Matrix Labs, said she made some fantastic connections during the event.

“In our daily work, we spend all day around guys,” said Moscatelli. “It was such a unique opportunity to spend time around so many smart, engaging and geeky women.”

GeekWire columnist Monica Guzman wondered if it was discriminatory to host an event that limits the participation of one group in favor of another.

“Is this a healthy event for our startup climate, or a flawed one?” Guzman asked.

You can check out Guzman’s column and all the interesting reader comments here.

Previously on GeekWire: Calling all coders: How did you learn how to program? … Life in Code: Why this entrepreneur is telling the stories of women in tech

  • http://troyjmorris.blogspot.com Troy Morris

    Let me preface this by saying I’m thrilled that Seattle is becoming a leader in women in tech. THRILLED.

    That being said, I’m really looking forward to that day when the gender imbalance (and then, hopefully, the sexism) is no longer a valid topic of discussion.

    Let me conclude by saying that I’m proud that the last few Seattle companies I have worked for are diligent about hiring female devs and engineers.

    The workplaces (and work produced) are all the better for the diversity.

  • http://fortheloveofthecreator.blogspot.com/ SHAHARIL AHMAD

    We need more rocket scientist…

  • aaronbrethorst

    Um…

  • CS Startup

    Taylor,

    Julie Sandler is awesome, but there’s no “entrepreneur” in her HBS -> Amazon -> VC career path. Also, you’re conflating Computer Science and Tech with startups and entrepreneurship. In fact, I don’t think any of the women on your “notable female entrepreneurs” list are computer scientists. There are some in Seattle though: Kate Matsudaira and Sarah Novotny are two that come to mind.

  • Suryn Longbotham

    Yes, most of the women I know make life-altering career decisions based on sitcoms, whose ever heard of a nerdy software engineer? Where did that idea even come from? I’ve been in the tech industry for 4 years and have yet to meet a single nerdy person.

    • disqus_sASIZgCTww

      The majority of humans beings in the first world do make many decisions based on superficial reasoning. You know, the type of reasoning that could compared as equivalent to situational comedy logic.

      Are you putting on a facade or is this genuine social disconnect that is surfacing from you?

  • Cindy Engstrom

    I always tell my single girlfriends that if you can get beyond the poor fashion, nerds are very coach-able, so doting and make the best bf’s/hubbies. You can change someone’s style but you can’t make someone smarter …. best men around are in Seattle because they are the smartest. I’ll take IQ over muscle any day (although i got lucky with both). Further, during my career I have found that nerds treat people the best because they evaluate based on IQ not gender.

  • Chuckers

    NERDS!

  • Michael

    What does the Big Bang Theory have to do with Computer Science? Those guys are theoretical physicists not CS.

    • Dave Melton

      As far as most people are concerned, it’s all one in the same.

  • Realist

    Well I don’t understand why this is an issue. Anyone who is so superficial as to be driven away by stereotypes wouldn’t have success in a technical field. This stereotype exists in its reverse form as well, saying that women who graduate in computer science are fat or ugly, and if there are men who didn’t choose this career for such a stupid reason, I am very happy that I will never have the “opportunity” to collaborate with them, just like I am happy that these women that participated in your study didn’t choose didn’t choose this career.

    I would like to point out one more thing: if some men said that they don’t want to get into a career like pharmacy because they “heard” that the women working there were unattractive, I’m sure that they would get accusations of sexism and objectification, not a pity party.

  • Guest

    Perhaps women avoid computer science because they are smart. Much of the propaganda about “shortages” of computer science professionals has largely been a ruse to artificially clamp starting salaries and lifetime earnings of computer science professionals. The historical data is profoundly clear:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/the-real-truth-about-the-stem-shortage-that-americans-dont-want-to-hear-2013-5#ixzz2VA4rA5Nz

  • Mike Christensen

    Link-bating Headline: Check

    Blatant generalizations of computer scientists: Check

    Sexist notion of what women want in men: Check

  • futureking

    Well computer science aint my cup of tea, but it makes like easier im more of a biogenetics kind of guy

  • miserableengineer

    Has anybody ever thought that maybe women don’t choose computer science because some of them DON’T LIKE COMPUTER PROGRAMMING? I chose to be a software engineer solely because I wanted to make lots of money and support myself without the help of a man, and guess what – I’m completely and utterly miserable. Let’s not force women into computer science. If we want to be there, we certainly will go.

  • jamesmonroe

    Why are so few women choosing computer science? You might instead ask: why are so few american males choosing CS? Compared to other majors, CS comes in at about 5% for men, with Business, Criminal Justice, and relatively soft forms of Science and Engineering dominating the rest (totally made up statistics, but I am going with them until I find out otherwise). In computer science, you work ten times harder than in other fields and get about twice the pay (another made up statistic that I’m running with). It has a horrible ROI. Most American males figure this out by second year of High School, if not sooner. And since women are generally smarter than men, they see this reality even sooner and more clearly.