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9/9/2015
09:06 AM
David Wagner
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Want More Women In IT? Drop the Geek

Young women of high school and college age are not attracted to computer science because of old stereotypes, some true and some not.

10 Trailblazing Companies For Women In IT
10 Trailblazing Companies For Women In IT
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Two studies done by the University of Washington show that one potential impediment to girls becoming IT pros is the "geek" stereotype of the IT pro, especially in the classroom.

A study conducted at the University of Washington and published in the Journal of Educational Psychology in August showed that girls might actually choose not to take introductory computer classes because the rooms in which they are conducted might be too "geeky." For the study, 269 14- to 18-year-olds were shown photos of two classrooms. One room had Star Trek and videogame posters on the walls and other "geeky" decor. The other had posters of art and landscapes on the walls and live plants in the room. Other than the decor, the rooms were identical.

The 'geeky' classroom.

(Image: University of Washington)

The "geeky" classroom.

(Image: University of Washington)

After they saw the classrooms, the students were asked which they preferred and how interested they were in computer science. The boys were split 52-48 on room preference, while 68% of the girls wanted the "non-Geeky" classroom. And girls said they were three times as likely to take a computer science course if it were taught in the non-geeky room. Boys showed no difference at all in their attitude about taking classes regardless of the room.

The 'non-geeky' classroom.

(Image: University of Washington)

The "non-geeky" classroom.

(Image: University of Washington)

By itself, this is interesting, but not necessarily robust enough to draw a major conclusion.

But a 2013 study by the same researchers revealed similar results from a different point of view. The study asked 293 college students to describe an IT professional. Not surprisingly, many of the descriptions -- mostly by non-computer science majors -- fell into traditional geek stereotypes. IT professionals were described as: socially awkward, likes scifi, plays video games all day, pale from lack of sunlight, and even having poor hygiene. Women who had taken at least one computer science class were less likely to respond with steretypes.

Then, 59 of the students were asked to read fabricated news stories that either confirmed or debunked those stereotypes. Afterward, they were asked if they wanted to take a computer science course.

As with the other study, males were entirely unaffected either way by the geek stereotypes. On the other hand, women who read the articles debunking the stereotypes were more likely to choose a computer science class than those who read articles confirming the stereotypes.

In other words, in both studies, women were more put off by the perceived stereotype of the geek than they were by computer science itself.

If we want more women in IT, it might be as simple as dropping the geek flag.

[ Of course, that doesn't explain why so many women leave IT. Read Women in IT: Is There an Exodus in Progress. ]

Now, personally, I've always waved the geek flag as a non-gendered affiliation. You're a geek if you're into the right things. It isn't a male-female thing. However, the researchers are quick to point out that media stereotypes of geeks tend to be male-dominated, even if real-world geekdom is not.

It isn't about computer science. It is about belonging. “Stereotypes make girls feel like they don’t fit with computer science,” Allison Master, one of the researchers, said in a press release, “That’s a barrier that isn’t there for boys. Girls have to worry about an extra level of belonging that boys don’t have to grapple with.”

As Sapna Cheryan, a researcher on both studies, said in a press release when she published the 2013 research: "Our message is not that the people in computer science need to change. 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."

In other words, if we want women in the field, maybe all we have to do is drop the geek. IT pros are varied and interesting people that used to have to "belong" to the geek tribe to survive the social pressures of a different world. Now, IT pros literally run the world. Maybe it is time we outgrow the geek. If not for our sake, for the sake of the field.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
9/9/2015 | 10:30:15 AM
classroom
Honestly, the two don't look all that different, just one is a bit neater with different posters on the wall. I suppose I should be grateful no one tried to make the classroom look female-friendly by painting it pink and putting flowers, hearts, and rainbows all around. 
sford336
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sford336,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/9/2015 | 12:44:18 PM
Classrooms and Language
I'm in IT and I would want the second classroom.  First of all, I get the stereotype, but I have never seen a classroom with Star Trek posters on the wall - not in college, not in certification training centers, nowhere.  So that really isn't representative.  Plus, the first picture has clutter on the floor and the second one is neat and clean.  Also, the first picture is dark and dim whereas the second is light and bright.  For reference, look at the top of the frame near the ceiling in both pictures.  The first picture is noticeably darker.  Look at the tone of the floor and the shade of the teacher's desk in both pictures.  Both elements in the top picture are darker.  This makes it gloomy.  Who would want to spend a whole semester in that classroom? About half the boys and a third of the girls according to the survey.  I don't know, maybe they liked the posters :)

In any learning environment, the teacher/facilities manager should strive for adequate lighting, cleanliness, neutral colors with some splash of creativity or inspiration, and a professional appearance.  I think that holds true for any classroom whether poly-sci, pre-med, or IT.

I still agree with the spirit of the article though.  There are many geek assumptions connected to IT careers.  One thing that might help is if we can change the language.  So many business people refer to technicians as the computer guy, but how do they know that the engineer about to be assigned to their case isn't a woman?  So if we could steer labels and titles toward IT Pro, Engineer, Developer, Data Scientist, etc. then maybe we can begin to dissolve the expectation that IT is traditionally a male-dominated field.

 
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
9/9/2015 | 2:07:33 PM
Geek label starts way earlier than IT career plans
My daughter is turning 12 next month, in 6th grade. I heard her telling her Mom she sat at the "geek" table for lunch, not the "cool girls" table. She is into Roblox and other interactive online games, as are most of her friends.

Like most kids today, she is an absolute wizard at using electronic devices of all types. But it is WAY too early to tell if she would ever want to make a career out of supporting or creating applications for them.

I think these researchers may be looking way too deep on this. I went to college planning to be in Psychology because I liked solving problems. Then I heard in school that computer people were getting jobs with 2.0 GPAs (1985). Being lazy and realizing my professional baseball plan wasn't happening, that seemed OK to me. The more I got into it, the more I discovered I had an aptitude for it. Sometimes it can be that simple to end up in IT.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
9/9/2015 | 11:24:57 PM
Re: Geek label starts way earlier than IT career plans

@TerryB   I hear you !  I did not grow up nerdy ( ok, maybe a little nerdy)  or geeky at all.  I wanted to be a Physician but you roll with the tide and the punches and end up with a lucky break or two and your off on a path never imagined.

I started computers about the same time you did and when I get frustrated I have to remind myself, It sure beats working for living !

TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
9/10/2015 | 12:51:36 PM
Re: Geek label starts way earlier than IT career plans
@technocrati "work for a living". That's funny, what sent me to college in first place was hanging drywall. I actually didn't start college first year after high school, I was making such good money doing that. But then I realized I might not want to be doing that when I'm 40. :-)
Stratustician
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Stratustician,
User Rank: Ninja
9/10/2015 | 3:16:30 PM
Re: Geek label starts way earlier than IT career plans
I agree.  As a woman who works in one of the more nerdier IT areas, security, sometimes when i read these research articles supposidly telling me why girls and women are avoiding IT it really only addresses a small fraction.  It's impossible to say that by downplaying the "Geek" factor, more women will join the IT force.  For me, one of the reasons I have seen many female colleagues leave is because they found it really hard to feel like they fit in when most of our colleagues are male.  Like male nurses who feel ostracized because they are surrounded by more females, sometimes it's hard to feel like you belong when naturally, sexes tend to socialize in their own groups.  Many women feel intimidated trying to be "one of the guys" when honestly, one thing I've learned is that you don't really have to.  Admittedly I am more on the nerdier side, but when it comes to the social aspect of work, while I might not be up to date on sports as much as my male colleagues, being females doesn't generally affect me.  It's just a perception that the IT industry has, like nursing being typically female, and if you do well, you can stand out easier than if you were in a more equal demographic.

Simply making it less geeky, and attempting to rebrand it as a way to attract more women isn't what needs to be done.  We just need to get more women in the ranks so they can help mentor younger women who aren't seeing as many female faces in these industries, and better promote the work that women are doing.  I got into computer science because of female role models like Hedy Lamarr, sadly those aren't the role models of young women today, celebrities seem to be.  Young girls need more exposure to computers and technology so they can learn about what the real potential career wise beyond the obvious programmer/coder bias.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
9/10/2015 | 3:44:22 PM
Re: Geek label starts way earlier than IT career plans
Very interesting @stratustician. I actually had to Google Hedy Lamarr, never heard of her. I immediately thought about Hedley Lamar from Blazing Saddles movie. I had no idea that was a play on someone else. :-)

No question I've seen more men in IT over my almost 30 years than women but I have worked with a few. Heck, I even married one of them although that didn't work out so well. I never asked her what made her get her two year degree and get into programming.

But I'm confused on one thing. How would women choosing a path in college know that IT has more men and they may not fit in comfortably? When I graduated, I really had no idea what you actually did in the real world. I spent all my time writing operating systems, compilers, just learning concepts, I didn't know what a business needed from IT. Probably why it took me 6 months to get my first job. :-)

I'm guessing people like Carly Fiorina and Mayer from Yahoo will help with your theory. Back in my day, there wasn't ANY famous IT people that ordinary people knew about. This was before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were household names.
Stratustician
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Stratustician,
User Rank: Ninja
9/11/2015 | 3:01:26 PM
Re: Geek label starts way earlier than IT career plans
@TerryB That's unfortunately the kicker, previously it wasn't really thought of that IT was a male dominated industry, so while I assumed that since most of the folks i interacted with were male that most of my colleagues would be male, I didn't know for sure.

I think now that we are more connected (when I was in school the internet was fairly new), there's a chance for more girls to research the field and while they'll definitely turn up articles talking about the bias, it might not be as big a factor for them.  The demographic will change, we just need to make sure that we get more info about the wide range of careers in tech to girls at a younger age.
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
9/16/2015 | 6:27:15 PM
2nd classroom
I would so want to be taught in the second classroom. And I love all things video game and sci fi and in general beilive it is the age of the geek. But the room looked barren without plants, and messy with stuff on the floor. And a messy classroom usually smells funny. THe second classroom looks more homey, more friendly. I've taken classes just to get to learn a certain classroom. If you want to be taught in the original building from the 1690's at W&M you needed to take certain philosophy or religion classes. I took both. To some people setting matters, so maybe we need to take the geek out.
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