How Hollywood Helps Deter Women from Computer ScienceS

The New York Times today would like to suggest that storytelling is powerful, that, in the whole art/life dynamic, it’s life that imitates art, not the other way around, at least not when it comes to kids imagining viable career paths for themselves. For instance, too many “Dilbert” perusals and Office Space viewings might be a reason that a high school girl stays away from computer science — amid all the representations of curvy-tie-wearing, rumple-haired dude computer programmers, there are few (if any) women, i.e. no characters that look like our imaginary high school girl with her thwarted ambitions of majoring in computer science.

There’s a well-researched, much-fretted-over dearth of women in the tech sector, more specifically in the field of computer science. According to the Times’ Catherine Rampell, the dismal numbers of women majoring in computer science, or becoming computer programmers don’t seem to be improving, either: just 0.4 percent of all female college freshmen say they plan on majoring in computer science, despite the fact that, as far as professional fields go, computer science and engineering offer college grads some of the most promising employment opportunities. We need computer programs and bridges, college, not another pack of aimless fedora-wearers chain-smoking Parliaments outside of the liberal arts building.

Things were actually better for female computer science majors back in the early 90s, according to Rampell, when “about 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer and information sciences went to women.” Now? That percentage has dipped to 18 percent and nobody can quite figure out why.

Nobody, that is, except for Geena Davis and her eponymous Institute on Gender Media, which studies children and family films to see how female characters are portrayed. Guess what? A recent study of family films, children’s shows and prime-time programs

from the institute revealed that few characters have computer science or engineering jobs, and, when such characters do appear, they’re overwhelmingly male. In this instance, “overwhelmingly” means that, in family films, the ratio of men to women in computer science or engineering jobs in 14.25 to 1, and 5.4 to 1 in prime time television.

We’re inundated with media representations of what the world is supposed to look like, either through the eyes of a sex columnist in New York or a socially awkward forensic anthropologist. Those representations are never accurate because 1) some team of assholes made it all up to help corporate America sell us more garbage, 2) there isn’t enough time in a 30-minute comedy or an hour-long drama to watch Carrie struggle with mounting credit card debt, or see Bones paying her mortgage. Still, we construct our own ideas of how the world works based on a palatable tonic of reality and fantasy, i.e. what we experience in the real world and how we see that world distorted and caricatured in the media or in a really persuasive novel. Basically the entire pool of aspiring novelists or painters or filmmakers first get their yearnings for creative careers through anecdotal evidence about how romantic/liberating/courageous/noble those careers seem. It’s all about glamour.

It’s also a little bit about portrayal. If you only ever see white astronauts that look like Charlton Heston landing on an ape planet, you might think that only people who look like Charlton Heston can embark on space journeys. Similarly, if you’re a young woman and only ever see men as computer programmers, you may not be inclined to imagine yourself in such a career.

Admittedly, computer science isn’t a glamorous profession, but, really, no profession is glamorous — there’s always more work than inspiration, more ceaseless toil than jaunty montages. Our perception of what computer science involves (nerdy quips, furtive Tetris marathons) and what kind of person studies computer science are in large part informed by the stories we tell ourselves. It wasn’t too long ago, explains Rampnell, that forensic scientist was an icky sort of role that would get farmed out to the most cadaverous character actor hanging around the Law & Order backlot. But now?

Public narratives about a career make a difference. The most common career aspiration named on Girls Who Code applications is forensic science. Like Allen [a 16-year-old girl with an interest in computer programming], few if any of the girls have ever met anyone in that field, but they’ve all watched “CSI,” “Bones” or some other show in which a cool chick with great hair in a lab coat gets to use her scientific know-how to solve a crime. This so-called “CSI” effect has been credited for helping turn forensic science from a primarily male occupation into a primarily female one.

Encouraging more women to hop on the computer science bandwagon (and, let’s be honest, time is running out until the day A.I. goes online and makes human labor completely obsolete) starts with changing the perception of how careers or majors are gendered, which, thanks to Hollywood, can only happen when more women are seen typing on a particularly sonorous keyboard during a hacking montage. Movies could use a few more Lisbeth Salanders.

I Am Woman, Watch Me Hack [NY Times]

Image via AP