Gender and STEM

Despite having made significant inroads into many traditionally male-dominated fields such as law and medicine, women continue to be starkly underrepresented in fields such as computer science (Cheryan, Ziegler, Montoya, & Jiang, 2017). Many theories have been put forth to explain women’s underrepresentation, ranging from innate female inferiority in quantitative skills to an unwillingness by women to sacrifice time with family. Our research shifts the explanation for underrepresentation away from women’s deficiencies and instead examines whether it is the image of the field, fueled by inaccurate stereotypes, that interferes with women’s ability to see themselves in computer science.

We found that there were clear stereotypes of computer science students as people who, for example, “stay up late coding and drinking energy drinks” and have “no social life” (Cheryan, Plaut, Handron, & Hudson, 2013). In several behavioral experiments (Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, 2009; Cheryan, Meltzoff, & Kim, 2011), we found that women who enter a computer science environment with objects stereotypically associated with the field (e.g., Star Trek posters, video games) are less likely to consider pursuing computer science than women who enter a computer science environment with non-stereotypical objects (e.g., art posters, water bottles). These results held even when the proportion of women in the environment was equal across the two types of environments. We then expanded to younger ages and found that computer science classrooms that do not fit current computer science stereotypes increase high school girls’ interest in computer science without deterring boys (Master, Cheryan, & Meltzoff, 2016).  In subsequent studies, we showed that encountering role models who exhibited the computer science stereotype in dress and preferences decreased women’s interest and anticipated success in computer science (Cheryan, Siy, Vichayapai, Drury, & Kim, 2011; Cheryan, Drury, & Vichayapai, 2013).

Why have some STEM fields (i.e., biology, chemistry, and math) been more successful in incorporating women and girls than other STEM fields (i.e., computer science, engineering, and physics)? We found that gender disparities exist when a field has two factors: a masculine culture and limited opportunities for pre-college experience. By first grade, girls and boys already believe that boys are better than girls at computer science (“programming”) and engineering (“robots”), and these stereotypes are stronger than their stereotypes about “math” and “science” (Master, Cheryan, & Meltzoff, 2017). However, allowing first-grade girls to play with a robot programming toy for 20 minutes increased their interest in learning computer science and engineering and had no similar effect on boys (Master, Cheryan, & Meltzoff, 2017).

Taken together, our work suggests that changing the masculine culture of computer science, engineering, and physics – for instance, using environments, media, and role models – may be fundamentally important to increasing women’s participation in them.


LA Times publishes our op-ed on girls and STEM toys, The gender gap in tech isn’t set in stone (September 2017)

The Washington Post published Allison’s Op-Ed, Researchers explain how stereotypes keep girls out of computer science classes (April 2016)

The New York Times published an Op-Ed, What Really Keeps Women Out of Tech (September 2015)

Popular Science reviewed our research in their article, Nerd stereotype might drive women away from computer science (June 2013)

Discovery News summarizes our findings in their article, Nerdiness turns women off to computer science (February 2013)

The New York Times mentions our work in their article, Out of the loop in Silicon Valley (April 2010)

Inside Higher Ed noted our study as one of interest in their blog, Mama PhD (March 2010)

The Society of Women Engineers Magazine noted our results in their article, Classroom environments provide cues and impact participation (Spring 2010).

Wired features our research in their article, Star Trek stops women from becoming computer scientists (December 2009)

MSNBC summarizes our findings in their article, Geeks drive girls out of computer science (December 2009)

UC Santa Cruz’s Science Notes described our studies and findings in their article, Of geeks and girls (August 2009)

National Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge features our work in a story, Prototypes as gatekeepers (April 2008)