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Ladies put off tech careers by sci-fi posters, Coke cans

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There's more research out this week on the vexed question of why there aren't more women in the field of computing and IT. According to the latest study, such seemingly harmless habits as putting up sci-fi posters or leaving cans of Coke about can be much more offputting than one might think.

"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," says Sapna Cheryan, a junior trick-cyclist at the university of Washington, America. "That stereotype doesn't appeal to many women who don't like the portrait of masculinity that it evokes."

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.

Similarly, when it was postulated that they had received job offers from two different firms - one full of Chewbacca desk toys etc, the other "non-stereotypical" - the ladies went overwhelmingly for the less geeky option. So did the chaps, in fact, but among them the preference was distinctly less marked.

"We want to attract more people to computer science. The stereotype is not as alienating to men as women, but it still affects them as well," argues Cheryan. "A lot of men may also be choosing to not enter the field because of the stereotype ... It would be nice for computer scientists in movies and television to be typical people, not only computer geeks."

Of course, one should bear in mind that this study was done among students from non-computing courses, probably indicating a lack of interest in the subject and quite likely a lack of aptitude too. It may not be that brilliant an idea for IT firms to remake their corporate atmosphere to attract such people.

On the other hand, it's possible to argue along with Cheryan that more ladies in the techy workplace would not only widen the recruiting pool of itself; it would also attract a wider selection of chaps into the field, too.

Whether that would be sufficient to justify replacing the treasured posters with tasteful framed prints, relegating the dubious tins of pop in favour of an espresso machine etc - well, that's probably a matter for the comments.

Meanwhile, for those interested in the details, Cheryan and her colleagues' research is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. ®

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