CAREER: Transforming the Image of Computing to Increase Female Participation in Computer Science

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This proposal involves gender differences in computer science as explained by social factors. Accordingly, the proposed research tests that efficacy of transforming social environments to encourage diversity of membership. We will test this hypothesis with a series of controlled behavioral studies in which we independently manipulate two orthogonal dimensions related to the image of computer scientists: gender and stereotypicality (i.e., the set of stereotypes widely associated with the group, such as affinity for video games and social awkwardness).


The study currently involves college students and eventually will include high schoolers and middle schoolers.

Research Design: 

This is an experimental study designed to generate causal evidence. This project collects original data using survey research [paper and pencil self-completion questionnaire] and virtual environments [Second Life]. Instruments or measures used in the study include:

  • Intentions to pursue Computer Science (CS): Intentions to pursue a career in CS (Morgan et al., 2001), interest in majoring in CS (Morgan et al., 2001), interest in taking CS classes, interest in developing CS skills (e.g., programming), interest in a particular environment (e.g., stereotypical classroom);
  • Evaluation of stereotypes: Ratings of media/environment/peer for likeability, tone (e.g., professional, maturity), and stereotypicality. Participants will also estimate the percentage of CS majors that are male to examine this as a potential mediator (when gender information is not provided) or as a manipulation check (when gender information is provided); and
  • Mediating process variables: Social fit scale adapted for CS (Walton & Cohen, 2007), self-efficacy with CS skills (adapted from McAuley, Duncan, & Tammen, 1989), beliefs about CS (Morgan et al., 2001), domain identification scale adapted for CS (J. L. Smith & White, 2001), beliefs about teacher, beliefs about classmates (e.g., masculinity), perceived negativity, extent to which one’s gender is valued (Davies et al., 2005; Markus, Steele, & Steele, 2002) and stereotype threat (Cohen & Garcia, 2005; Marx, Stapel, & Muller, 2005; Steele & Aronson, 1995).

Primary analyses will utilize analyses of variance (ANOVA) to test the effects of gender and stereotypicality on dependent measures, Mediation analyses (Baron & Kenny, 1986) will be conducted to examine what factors (e.g., beliefs about computer science, social fit, stereotype threat) mediate the relationship between type of representation and the dependent measure.


Women were less interested in environments that contained objects stereotypically associated with computer science (e.g., Star Trek poster, video games) compared to identical environments that had non-stereotypical objects (e.g., nature poster, general interest books). These results help even when the proportion of women in the environment was equal across the two environments.

Publications & Presentations: 

Cheryan,S., Plaut, V.C., Davies, P., & Steele, C.M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical environments impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1045-1060.

Other Products: 

The study will lead to the development of a virtual psychology laboratory that can be used well beyond the project duration to study stereotypes. One primary goal of this study is to disseminate findings broadly to schools, universities and the general public so more positive educational environments can be developed to nurture the interest and aspirations of women to enter the STEM fields.