Monday, June 4, 2012

Women, Technology, and Stereotype Threat

It's no secret that women are underrepresented in the tech world.  With a smaller proportion of women receiving computer and information science degrees in 2009 than in 1985 (it went from 37% women in 1985 down to 18% in 2009!), the future for women in computer science looks bleak.  A recent article on the Women 2.0 blog by Christian Fernandez highlighted the lack of female representation in computer science courses in universities, with women representing only 10-20% of students graduating with computer science degrees, despite some programs starting with a 50/50 gender ratio.  He attributes this to women feeling intimidated by a hostile environment that leaves them feeling inadequate.

The sociological term for this phenomenon is called "stereotype threat," and it means that the individual (woman in this case), being part of society, recognizes that there is a negative stereotype about them. In this case, the stereotype is that women are not as good as men at technical stuff.  Because they recognize this, they become anxious that they will inadvertently confirm the stereotype.  In response, they behave in certain ways that can undermine their success, or, they may overcompensate for what they think will be a negative reaction by working harder than everyone else.  In the first case, they are faced with failure, and in the second, with burnout.  Sociologists have studied this phenomenon in great detail when it comes to racial stereortypes.

But stereotype threat is also a concept that tends to blame the victim.  By saying that women's worries about confirming negative stereotypes are causing them to drop out and feel inadequate, we are missing out on the importance of the social context in contributing to women's under-representation in technology.  In particular, Fernandez's report that women felt the environment in computer science courses was "hostile" towards women, indicates that this is not just about how these women feel about themselves and their abilities.

The context and culture of the university (or workplace) are critical in creating this hostile environment.  This includes things like whether women are in leadership positions, whether the work is structured as competitive or collaborative, and whether efforts are made to highlight the contributions of minorities and ensure they are included in activities.  Thus, it is one thing to prepare young women for university-level coursework, but it is altogether another to create an environment in which they can thrive without gender being an issue.

What's the solution?
Universities and high schools need to place an emphasis on structuring the work environment in a way that doesn't privilege the status quo.  For example, women may feel isolated from the community of computer science students if study or work groups are divided by gender.  Providing opportunities for more interaction among students in a non-competitive environment may help to bring down some of the barriers women face in these programs.  Young women may also be looking for role models, and either bringing in guest lecturers or hiring more female faculty members would provide young women with an opportunity to learn from those who have been there before them.

Why does this matter for startups?
In industries where there are few minorities, like women in tech, it's important to be aware of ways you may be alienating those who are not typical of your industry.  For example, while Beer Fridays can be a great team spirit-building time for small companies, they may also exclude those who choose not to drink alcohol, or who feel obligated to drink alcohol when they'd prefer not to.  This is something that women think about because they are physically smaller and cannot process as much alcohol as men, so two beers for a petite woman could make her quite tipsy while a 200 pound man would barely notice it.  Because of this, some women or people who do not drink alcohol, may remove themselves from otherwise fun group activities.  So try to make your events as open and welcoming to all kinds of people in your business.

What else can universities or businesses do support gender equality in computer science and technology programs?

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