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Does Science Fiction Make Your Workplace A Hostile Environment For Women?

Illustration for article titled Does Science Fiction Make Your Workplace A Hostile Environment For Women?

Computer geeks: Tear down those science-fiction posters! Get rid of those Tron lightcycle toys! Your science-fiction bric-a-brac is scaring women away from IT, says a new study.


According to The Register:

[University of Washington researcher Sapna] Cheryan and her colleagues arranged multiple experiments and surveys among hundreds of non-computing-subjects students at Washington uni. Questionnaires were filled in in different rooms - one previously prepared with a science fiction poster, games kit and Coke cans; one instead with "nature" and "art" wall graphics, books and coffee cups. This stage dressing was ostensibly not part of the tests, but nonetheless it had a powerful effect on decisions by the ladies taking part.

Specifically, women filling in questionnaires in the stereotypically geeky room were significantly less likely to express interest in computer-science related studies or careers. having seen both environments, and then hypothetically offered a chance to work in an all female team in either kind of room, they still went for the non-geeky atmos.


Cheryan goes on to say that we want to attract more people to computer science, and the presence of Chewbacca action figures scared off both men and women from the discipline.

What the article doesn't mention until towards the end, though, is that the people taking part in this study weren't computer-science students — they were studying other subjects. (Do you really want to attract English majors to computer science?) Add to that the loads of biases that seem to have been jammed into this study (like the idea that liking science fiction is "masculine" and science-fiction toys are automatically a boys-only thing) that it's hard to take it seriously.

It sucks, though, that companies are receiving these kinds of messages, like the idea that women only want to look at images of nature. (Maybe a nice waterfall, or a kitten with a sign saying "HANG IN THERE BABY"?) It just seems intrinsically silly — women who are interested in computer science will be, ipso facto, geeks, and that means they'll be interested in geeky stuff. So let's not rush to tear down the giant robot wall art just yet.

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As a self-proclaimed geek who also is a woman and a researcher familiar with this line of work I have a hard time understanding the all negative responses here. Science fiction is a stereotypically masculine genre, as is the field of computer science. The point of the study, if you read the actual empirical article, is not to poo-poo sci fi or cs either. It's to show that even when women are explicitly discouraged from certain fields they are faced with stereotypical stuff which reminds them they can't (and shouldn't even try) to do certain things. They're not telling you to take down your poster, they're just acknowledging that the poster is more than just a poster.

And to address the "Do you really want to attract English majors to computer science?" question, I would say why not? Particularly if the only reason they aren't there in the first place is because they've been told they wouldn't be good enough at it.