Belonging & Belongings: Who’s in the Room Depends on What’s in the Room

This article is part of an ongoing blog series, titled Inequality in STEM: a Dive Into the Data. In this series, we cover recent research exploring and quantifying inequality in STEM. We'll discuss different aspects of inequality, including barriers to career advancement and a chilly social climate, as well as the efficacy of various interventions to combat bias. Our goal with these pieces is to provide clear summaries of the data related to bias in STEM, giving scientific evidence to back up the personal experiences of URMs in STEM fields.

In a dramatic example of the modern capacity to backpedal haphazardly into the 1970s, the proportion of women in computer science and technology fields has been steadily plummeting since the tech boom in the 80s and 90s. An NPR article called “When Women Stopped Coding” highlights this appalling trend reversal with a graph showing the number of female computer science majors rising from 13% in 1970 to 35% in 1985 before taking a nosedive back down to 18% in 2010. This is in stark contrast to gender ratios in other fields like medicine, law, and even physics which have been steadily equalizing. What is it about computer science that makes this problem so much greater? Why did women stop coding just when the floodgate of modern technology was blown wide open?

            Simple explanations fall short. Is it that computer science spaces were dominated by men? Sure, but that didn’t stop gender ratios from rising quite rapidly for a time before this perplexing downfall. Is it that women have fewer resources for success in these fields? Sure, but this is true in medicine and physics as well and certain resources have been getting steadily more accessible over time. In the absence of our usual explanations, it is time we take a closer look at some of the more complex, subtle, but powerful societal influences.

            Right around the time that the rising female:male ratio in computer science started to decline again, personal computers started to become commonplace. This has led some scholars to speculate that the tech boom played a critical role in females choosing to leave computer science…or perhaps choosing not to enter it at all. The latest tech was often marketed toward young boys, including computer games, video games, and educational programming tools, alongside which “geek” culture arose. Tech startups were particularly susceptible to this trend, developing “bro-y” work environments that featured video game consoles and soda cans. Of course, there are people of all gender identities including many women who enjoy and embrace this geek culture, but it may be the case that it inadvertently poses a problem for diversity and inclusion. 

Research has shown that ambient belonging, or the feeling of fitting into an environment can have a profound effect on peoples’ behavior. This feeling of belonging can arise from more than just one’s sense of fit with the people in the environment, and is often influenced by physical objects and materials. How we perceive and interpret our own group’s belonging in various communities can influence whether we approach or avoid certain spaces, which can completely alter the courses of our lives. For this reason, it is essential for us to understand how the environments we create influence others.

Figure 1. Reported interest in computer science by women ( N  = 22) and men ( N  = 17) in Study 1 when sitting in a room with objects stereotypically associated with computer science or not stereotypically associated with computer science. (Cheryan, S., Plaut, V. C., Davies, P. G., & Steele, C. M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1045-1060.

Figure 1. Reported interest in computer science by women (N = 22) and men (N = 17) in Study 1 when sitting in a room with objects stereotypically associated with computer science or not stereotypically associated with computer science. (Cheryan, S., Plaut, V. C., Davies, P. G., & Steele, C. M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1045-1060.

            In spite of how abstract a concept this may seem, it can actually be pretty straightforward to investigate scientifically. In a study by Cheryan and colleagues (2009), researchers asked male- and female-identifying undergraduate students to report whether they were interested in majoring in computer science. The single experimental manipulation was that the students were seated in one of two computer science classrooms at Stanford University. One of these rooms contained items stereotypical of “geeky” tech culture - including video games, junk food, and a Star Trek poster. These items were chosen based on a poll of a separate large group of students who were asked what objects they imagined in an office or dorm room of a computer scientist. The second room instead contained neutral items including general interest magazines, water bottles, and a nature poster. With nothing else differing between the two settings, the students were told that they were participating in a career development survey and were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their interest in computer science. Unlike male students, female students differed dramatically in their reports of interest in computer science based solely on which room they were sitting in. Women in the geek-ed out room reported being less interested in computer science than their male colleagues, whereas women in the neutral room were equally interested in computer science as men.

            Does the effect of these seemingly innocuous objects extend beyond interest in undergraduate majors to even more life-altering career decisions? In a follow-up study, the same group of researchers explored whether a new group of women would forsake a hypothetical job opportunity given the objects in a room, even when the company was entirely composed of women. This time, two pretend groups of female tech company employees were situated in the same two rooms as before: one stereotypical and the other neutral. When asked which of the two companies they would like to work for, female participants in the study were much less likely to choose to work with the team in the stereotypical environment, even though the jobs and salaries were identical. The participants were also asked follow-up questions to directly measure their feelings of ambient belonging. The more that female participants reported perceiving the environment as “masculine” the lower their reports of feeling like they belonged in the environment, and the lower their ratings of interest in the company. This suggests that women can be discouraged from working in certain computer science jobs simply by environments that communicate that they do not belong, even when the composition of employees is entirely female.

Of course, no one would argue that a Star Trek poster itself is inherently harmful and we need not throw out our foosball tables just yet. The fundamental issue is that there is inequality in which groups of people feel they belong in computer science. Luckily, there may be other ways to circumvent this problem and help more under-represented minorities feel that they belong in tech. By encouraging computer activities equally for all young kids and increasing the visibility of female computer scientists as role models, we could start to reverse the societally engrained assumption that programmers are men. Moreover, we can amplify the voices of under-represented minorities in meetings and acknowledge the contributions of those who have consistently been ignored, to help make everyone feel that they belong. Simply understanding the issue of ambient belonging and being able to articulate these points may go a long way toward validating these feelings that many people hold, and can draw attention to the problems at hand. Importantly, we must also reassess our own implicit assumptions that some people are less capable of becoming computer science experts than others, because these assumptions, even if unconscious, are prone to seeping into our worlds and influencing the wellbeing of those around us. Given that all of us, regardless of personal identity, carry implicit biases about each others’ capabilities, the task of helping others to feel that they belong falls on all of us.

Sapna Cheryan, Victoria C. Plaut, Paul G. Davies & Claude M. Steele. Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6): 1045-1060, 2009.