How much does environment affect women’s sense of belonging in CS?

That’s the question asked by Sapna Cheryan, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington.  Sapna uses Second Life to set up virtual classroom spaces:  one a stereotypical CS classroom, with Star Trek posters and computer parts and soda cans strewn about; and one a more neutral space, with art posters, plants, a desk lamp, etc.  She then has subjects navigate through these virtual spaces and asks them questions about how likely they were to take a CS class in one or the other space, as well as their general attitudes about CS.

Cheryan’s results show that environment does have a big impact on women’s feelings about studying CS.  According to the article,

Girls in the study consistently rated themselves less interested, less capable and less similar to the inhabitants of the “geek room” than the neutral room.But what if it had nothing to do with the objects, Cheryan asked? What if they just thought all CS majors were boys? She did the study again, this time asking students to imagine they were joining an all-female team at a company. The only difference between the two teams was the objects in their office. Girls flocked to the non-geeky job.

Every time they changed the study, the results were the same: Most women avoided the geek space. When prompted, many said it gave them a masculine vibe. The more masculine they found the room, the less they liked it.

“The extent to which women don’t like that room was pretty surprising,” Cheryan says. “No matter what we do to that room, even if we make it all female, women just don’t feel like they belong there.”

There are some interesting quotes at the end of the article, too, from some women computer scientists, who blanch at the idea of “neutralizing” the geeky CS image—the women quoted clearly and comfortably associate themselves with the geek image, and feel a bit threatened by the idea of changing this image.

This article was very interesting to me, as someone who has never felt like she fit in with the culture of engineering or computer science.  There are subtle cues in any environment, not just from the people but from the objects, the conversation topics, etc.  When I think about culture in CS issues, though, I tend to concentrate on the people, the conversations, the interactions.  I wonder what our CS spaces are saying about us?  What our classrooms and labs say about us?  We are currently in the midst of redesigning our student lounge, which had become totally unusable and unwelcoming—-for many of the reasons this article points out (well, no Star Trek posters, but computer junk everywhere).  I’d love to see if any of the suggestions from these studies would actually make a difference to the students…and if a simple thing like redecorating our lounge could change the message we’re sending about what CS is all about?