Imagine the most extreme stereotypes about computer scientists: They're socially awkward indoor kids. They have an obsessive focus on technology and a closet full of rumpled hoodies. Cultural perceptions about who is a computer scientist -- or an engineer or a physicist -- are a big reason why women are still underrepresented in certain science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle. "The assumptions about what it takes to be a good computer scientist or engineer are very narrow," said Sapna Cheryan, a UW psychology professor and lead author of a study published this week in the journal Psychological Bulletin. "If you have narrow stereotypes, then it's going to end up attracting a more narrow band of people, including a narrow band of men," she told Mashable.
Robots are the most powerful blank slate humans have ever created. A robot is a mirror held up not just to its creator, but to our whole species: What we make of the machine reflects what we are. That also means we have the very real opportunity to screw up robots by infusing them with exaggerated, overly simplified gender stereotypes. "I think of it more as a funhouse mirror," says Julie Carpenter, who studies human-robot interaction. "It's very distorted, especially right now when we're still being introduced to the idea of robots, especially real humanoid robots that exist in the world outside of science fiction."
Damaging gender stereotypes are ingrained from the age of 10. That is the conclusion of the first study to draw together data from high, middle and low-income countries across different cultures about how "tweenagers" perceive growing up as a boy or girl. Researchers interviewed 450 children aged 10 to 14, plus a parent or guardian, from 15 countries, including Nigeria, China, the US and South Africa. They found that across all cultures, early adolescents were fitted with a "gender straitjacket" that has lifelong consequences linked to an increased risk of health problems. These are particularly perilous for girls.
Let's start with a quiz. The answers are, respectively: men, men, girls, boys. If you got at least one right, without resorting to flipping a mental coin, you have just demonstrated to yourself that not all beliefs (stereotypes) about males and females are wrong. If you got three or four right, you should be convinced that your gender stereotypes are not inaccurate. You're not alone: Lots of other people may--many actually do--hold fairly accurate gender stereotypes.
The persistent underrepresentation of women in computing has gained the attention of employers, educators, and researchers for many years. In spite of numerous studies, reports, and recommendations we have seen little change in the representation of women in computer science (CS)--consider that only 17.9% of bachelor's degrees in computer science were awarded to women in 2016 according to the annual Taulbee Survey.15 At Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) we do not believe the situation is an intractable problem. By paying close attention to culture and environment, and taking a cultural approach rather than a gender difference approach, our efforts continue to pay off. The percentage of women enrolling and graduating in CS at CMU has exceeded national averages for many years (see the accompanying figure and table).