Monday, December 28, 2009

Star Trek to blame for lack of female Computer Scientists ???

How very interesting, two topics that are very dear to my heart...Star Trek and gender balance in Computer Science...a study has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggesting that stereotypical images of computer science (including Star Trek, videogames, junk food, and comic books) create barriers to females from joining the fold, as the decor broadcasts a kind of masculinity. The paper entitled "Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science" suggests that these stereotypical images can either create/prevent a sense of (ambient) belonging, and for females they serve as barriers to joining.

I love the debate that this opens; I think it is a very interesting and a very important issue to discuss. I think it is vital we have gender balance in computer science, it is a necessity as fundamental as gravity.

The study in this paper is a good beginning, but that's about it, in it the authors presented students with two computer rooms, one which contained comic books, video-game boxes and junk food, the other room contained nature posters, healthy snacks and general interest books -- given the choice, 82 percent of the women picked the nonstereotypical workroom. In follow-up tests, a total of 215 students were asked to imagine they were joining either a geekily decorated or a neutrally decorated company after graduation. For every possible scenario, women preferred the non-geeky space.

Lead author Sapna Cheryan of the University of Washington suggests that non-stereotypical depictions of computer science, in the media and in classrooms, could help update the field’s image. Now this it seems to me is very, very obvious, and over simplified -- the findings suggest that environment can influence people's comfort level. I accept this, but I think there are a number of larger issues here, such as the way computer education is treated in secondary school as a result of secondary school teachers attitudes to women in science. I think blaming the media is a bit trite, I have previously looked at the representation of computer users in TV and it is clear to me that female computer users are well represented in the media.

I think to make this type of study more useful, the experimental approach needs to be expanded.

First what we need are more longitudinal studies on this issue, the study undertaken in this paper appears to be a very short-term experiment.

And second let's see which of the geeky elements are the problem. Do they work in combination or is there any one element that is key? My view is "let's not eliminate these things (where possible) let's modify them to be more inviting to everyone", So;
  • If Star Trek is a parameter, what if the images are of positive female role models in Star Trek, e.g. Captain Janeway or B'Elanna Torres the engineer, would this change things?
  • If video games are a parameter, let's try ones with more positive female role models in them.
  • If the issue is junk food let's just get rid of junk food out of computer labs, it's bad for your brain.
  • If the issue is comic books, can we find comics with positive female role models? like Halo Jones or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Still this is a great paper to start the debate.

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