Star Trek & Girl Gamers: Exploring The Gender Gap In Computer ScienceS

Is the "geeky" image of computer science turning women off to the field? A new scientific study thinks so - but are the forces creating the gender gap in technology really just the perception of comic books and video games?

Wired summarizes the study, found in the December Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Lead author and research Sapna Cheryan had an interesting question - if people can base their perceptions of another person on the items found in their bedroom, would the same type of reasoning apply in a classroom setting? Cheryan and her team quickly set up an experiment:

Cheryan and colleagues tested this idea by alternately decorating a computer science classroom with objects that earlier surveys pegged as stereotypically geeky-Star Trek posters, videogames and comic books - or with objects that the surveys found to be neutral- coffee mugs, plants and art posters. Thirty-nine college students spent a few minutes in the room, then filled out a questionnaire on their attitudes toward computer science.

Women who spent time in the geeky room reported less interest in computer science than women who saw the neutral room. For male students, however, the room's décor made no difference.

In follow-up tests, a total of 215 students were asked to imagine they were joining either a geekily decorated or a neutrally decorated company after graduation. For every possible scenario, women preferred the non-geeky space.

"It's a consistent effect," Cheryan says. "The environment can communicate a sense of belonging, but it also communicates a sense of exclusion, or a sense that this is not a place where I would fit in."

Cheryan and co-researchers believe that by creating more neutral appearing spaces will help combat stereotypes and improve diversity in the computer science field.

Cheryan is correct in thinking perception matters in how people place themselves in different roles. But as a geeky girl gamer, I think that focusing on the internal motivations for why women avoid stereotypical or gendered areas (i.e., "I just don't think I belong") obscures the nature of societal norms to influence women away from engaging in the maths and sciences, especially as they are considered male dominated spaces.

Some of the most fascinating explorations of this dynamic are found in Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming. The collection of research findings and games theory, published in 2008, reveal a lot more than barriers to entry for women who want to play games or work in the industry - it reveals how gender norms often influence how "permitted" women are to access certain spaces, and how those limitations function to maintain the low numbers of women entering fields like computer science or game design.

Some of the research upholds Cheryan's ideas. In "Becoming a Player," T.L. Taylor uses the marketing strategies and environments of gaming stores to illustrate the belonging dynamic:

Part of the work of any leisure activity is coming to understand - practically and symbolically - that this is something you can do, that it is not at odds with your sense of self or your social world. The game industry (and, I would argue, the larger game community) knows this at some level and is constantly working to give players information about new games, where to get them, why they are fun, and how to play them. Just as powerfully, it is always mirroring back to boys and men that "this is your and your friends' play space" and "you belong here. Rarely are women gamers given this kind of attention. (p. 55)

Two other studies explain how the idea that some people "belong" and some do not take shape and manifest themselves in physical space. "Getting Girls into the Game," a joint study by Tracy Fullerton, Janine Fron, Celia Pearce, and Jacki Morie, explored a variety of reasons why more women don't pursue careers in gaming. After concluding that early experiences with video games impact how girls perceive the space, they note:

These early experiences pave the way to an interest in game development, but male-dominated environments can limit girls' involvement. In fact, computer labs in schools or clubhouses are often dominated by boys, who tend to elbow out the girls and take control of the equipment. (p. 168)

In "Gender Identity, Play Style, and the Design of Games for Classroom Learning," researchers Carrie Heeter and Brian Winn also talk about some of the gendered norms that come into play when there are limitations on availability of equipment:

When boys play games (or use computers), when there are fewer machines than people, girls step aside. It is difficult to determine whether it is the girls' "stepping aside" from their opportunity… or the boys "crowding out" the girls…. Nonetheless, this chemistry seems to exist between males and females pervasively when it comes to using gaming machines. (p.282)

The most comprehensive (and damning) research comes from Holin Lin, who invested countless hours into her research in Taiwan. Seeking answers to women's exclusion from the larger gaming world, Lin decides to look into home life, societal messaging, school and peer groups in her groundbreaking study "Body, Space, and Gendered Gaming Experiences: A Cultural Geography of Homes, Cybercafés and Dormitories." I devoted a substantial portion of my review of Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat to Lin's research, because the connections drawn are mindblowing:

Deftly weaving connections between the threat of violence, gendered socialization, and the internalized expectations of the women themselves, Lin paints a scenario familiar to any woman who moves into a heavily gendered space. Taiwanese youth frequent cybercafés to increase their skills, use upgraded machines, and hang out with their friends. However, women gamers looking to participate in the fun have to contend with real-world harassment:

The layouts of some cybercafés serve as gender barriers: girls must pass through a room full of pool tables to access the back spaces that are reserved for computers. Most girls are not willing to subject themselves to the scrutiny of and comments made by the pool players, and therefore only enter when accompanied by male friends.

This parallels one of Lin's observations of cybercafés in Taiwan… most girls are unwilling to enter a cybercafé unless accompanied by a male friend. Together, these stories imply that physical and social barriers to entry for women become misinterpreted as a lack of desire to play video games.

Despite the limits of online, virtual communities, however, they are often more appealing to female gamers than actual, physical cybercafés, as Lin points out:

Women's fear and perceptions of risk are deeply rooted in their bodies, and avoiding dangerous places is a common practice for managing the fear of male violence. In contrast, no threat of physical harm exists for players wearing either female or male avatar bodies.

Outside of the dynamics of the cybercafe scene, Lin also looks at women at home, from growing up with their parents to their play dynamics in college dormitories. Lin notes that college-aged male gamers tend to see gaming as a way to bond, while female gamers are often ostracized and made into a minority. In addition, family pressures tend to place pressure on girls to do more help with household tasks, as well as to work on social relationships. Males, however, were often left to their own devices when it came to interacting with technology. This functions to increase discomfort with technologies as women are socialized to spend less time understanding and getting familiar with these types of systems. Over time, this casual discouragement on so many fronts presents girls with a disincentive to continue working with or playing with game systems - and this dynamic is also evident with most other technologies, including computers.

Lin concludes that "[c]ultural constructions of gender are ubiquitous and therefore hard to remove from any analytical interpretation of gender issues in computer gaming." And indeed, while Cheryan has the right idea with looking at how spaces can be perceived as hospitable and inhospitable, solving the issue of gender gaps in technology will require looking at encouragement to get into the maths and sciences plays strongly into societal idea of what girls are "supposed" to do and where they "belong." And I'm afraid it will be a bit more complex than redesigning classrooms.


Star Trek Stops Women From Becoming Computer Scientists
[Wired]
Beyond Barbie® and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Hardcover)

Related: Gamer Girls Rising [Women's Review of Books]