In a set of interesting experiments, University of Washington professors of psychology have perhaps gained some insight into why computer science departments have a difficult time finding female students (and, relatedly, further insight into why I’m single): geek culture. "When people think of computer science the image that immediately pops into many of their minds is of the computer geek surrounded by such things as computer games, science fiction memorabilia and junk food," said Sapna Cheryan, a University of Washington assistant professor of psychology. "That stereotype doesn't appeal to many women who don't like the portrait of masculinity that it evokes," Cheryan said.

The UW professors composed a series of scenarios in which people were introduced into physical environments were decorated with geek culture trappings like “computer games, science fiction memorabilia and junk food,” and into rooms decorated with items from neutral class and office environments (coffee mugs, nature and posters, dictionaries).

While the difference in “stereotypical’ computer science environments and neutral ones did not greatly affect men’s decisions about computer science, all the gaming and sci-fi made women less likely to be interested in going into the field.

In perhaps the most telling study, women were given the choice between joining stereotypical or neutral work teams. Eighty-two percent chose to work in the neutral team.

"It is the sense you get right away when you walk into a room. You look at the objects and make an instant appraisal of how you would fit with the objects and the people who are typically found in that environment. You also make a judgment of 'I like it here' or 'I don't belong here,'" she said.

The study’s authors suggest that changing the stereotypical view of computer science as a celebration of geek masculinity would make the field more attractive for student of either gender, but especially.

“The stereotype is not as alienating to men as women, but it still affects them as well,” Cheryan said.

"A lot of men may also be choosing to not enter the field because of the stereotype," Cheryan said. "We need to broaden the image of the field so both women and men feel more welcome. In workplaces and universities we can do this by changing the way offices, hallways and labs look. The media can also play a role by updating the image of computer science. It would be nice for computer scientists in movies and television to be typical people, not only computer geeks."

By Mark Alvarez