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?


2 thoughts on “How much does environment affect women’s sense of belonging in CS?

  1. Assuming for the sake of argument that the specific environs have a significant impact on the likelihood of women entering and–more importantly–staying in the field, there are really two questions that pop into my head: first, how can any campus or department ensure that designs will actually work toward this end? But just as important, how can their users make sure that those facilities will live up to their potential in fostering a positive image?

    A big part of the first question, I think, has to do with giving students agency to shape the space–and making sure that they feel empowered to use it. Student spaces need to be organic, and students are great at that if left to their own devices–not unlike, say, termites– but if the decor, etc. is really left to students, then the majority (that is to say, men) will shape it, minimizing the individual impact of female students and majors by sheer demographics. Part of this can be confronted in the initial design by making sure that non-male voices are a part of the discussion, and are truly listened to. But the barriers to decorative entry need to be reduced as well. To me, that means leaving ample space for women to put their own mark on it, and trying to dissuade anyone from monopolizing the space.

    That leads into the second question, though. The best designed space in the world won’t change impressions about CS if there’s no substantial enticement to spend time there. Some of the limitations in Carleton’s case are fixed. The department can’t well move itself to another building, or off the third floor of CMC. But it can, for a start, make more of an effort to publicize the lounge’s existence. There’s very little, apart from a printed sheet of paper, to suggest what’s behind that metallic door. Thinking about what I’ve seen work in other departments, having shelving for current journals, more couches, and things like a water-cooler and tea bags might help as well. Putting a few workstations in there would make it a more appealing location as well. Students work a lot at Carleton, and successful lounges are ones that let them do so in the company of friends, and in familiar, inspiring environs. The most radical suggestion I could make would be to consider repurposing the conference room at the end of the hall in the office suite. I’m biased, but the Religion and History lounges are wonderful examples of places that bring together instructors and students in an informal and
    constructive setting. Not to mention the fact that it’s an unbeatable, peaceful view.

    But ultimately, the biggest barrier to entry–even as a devoutly Star Trek-loving male–during my one term in CS was the fact that the lounge gave off a “hard core CS folks only” sort of vibe. It was often used as a retreat from the labs, where majors went when they didn’t feel like listening to intro students struggle through things that they mastered terms ago. The computer junk littered about did little to change that. A space that isn’t welcoming to the non-committed crowd–whatever their gender–isn’t likely to encourage anyone except those who are already in the hard-core camp to stick around. Fixing that won’t necessarily change anything on the gender representation front by itself, but it removes a drag on efforts that might.


    • Hal, you raise some excellent points, and thanks so much for sharing your perspective. We are, in fact, in the midst of redoing the CS lounge, for many of the reasons you mention in the last part of your comment—that, and the lounge had largely become a “sleeping space” for our majors. Oddly, we’re getting a lot of push-back from our majors who don’t see a problem with the current (non)use of the room (and who like having a napping place). We’re trying to figure out the best way to get the word out that the lounge is there and it’s open to everyone, but you’re right that a big part of this will be buy-in from the students, too. I think part of it can come from the faculty, though, sort of “endorsing” the use of the space for something other than Comps meetings, sort of giving students “permission” to use the space (although I hate thinking about it in those terms).


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