Beating Stereotype Threat in the Classroom: Encouraging #techgirls Participation in #STEM careers

ICT careers are often depicted in the media as a male-domain even though women played an important role in the early development of computers. In the 2012 book Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, author Janet Abbate explains that when the first computers (e.g the Colossus) were developed during World War II in the UK, women were responsible for essentially inventing programming languages.

Despite this, women continue to reject the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry as a potential career path, even though the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women argues that mainstreaming a gender perspective in technology and innovation enhances social and economic equity

One reason for this lack of interest in ICT careers is “stereotype threat” that unconsciously manifests in our pedagogical practice in the classroom. Such stereotypes, the pictures in our head that simplify our thinking about other people, work their way into our teaching practices. Often teaching ICT in the classroom relates to solving gambling or sporting problems, and lacks context of the problem being solved. This is important because of the old tool vs toy argument: boys are comfortable with playing (toying) with technology for hours without a particular goal in mind, whereas girls use technology more often as a tool to get a task completed quickly. Girls in particular also like to see that they are contributing to social good.

There exist certain expectations about participating in the ICT workforce and the characteristics of those employed in the industry, and these are reinforced by the history of nerds in movies and on television, who are all male and stereotypical:

Examples of nerds in Sitcoms are Steve Urkel in Family Matters (1989-1998), Moss and Roy in The IT Crowd (2006-2010) and Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Rajesh in The Big Bang Theory (2007-present). 

Prominent Nerds in movies are Lewis and Gilbert in Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and the character of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the The Social Network (2010). 

Furthermore, reality shows have recently started to explicitly cast nerds as participants.  Examples for American reality TV formats that prominently feature nerds are Beauty and the Geek (2005-2008) and the very recent King of the Nerds (2013).

ICT stereotypes are reinforced in the media through technical roles proliferated by nerdy boys and men with the stereotypical large glasses, no or few social skills and the preference for pizza and coke, like gamers. This form of “stereotype threat” discussed in the academic literature has wide ranging consequences. 

Firstly, it minimises girls ability to perform well in technical tasks, consequently dissuading girls from even considering a technical career path. Research from Aronson et al., (1999) suggests that girls under “stereotype threat” are more likely to attribute failure to something within themselves. They employ this as a defensive strategy to erect barriers to performance that enable the girls to attribute the failure to the barrier rather than an innate deficiency in ability. Alarmingly, these widely visible stereotypes in ICT can impact even if girls are interested in technology careers, they can still be dissuaded through “stereotype threat” which often starts in middle school. Thus, when we invoke a stereotype-based conceptualisation of technical roles it is self-propagating; if girls are told that technology roles are not suited to them, then they will not perform as well as they are able to in such roles. Overall the consistent message is that girls and computing do not mesh well, and that IT is not a favoured career option for girls. This has drastic consequences for our society.

Aronson et al (1999)’s well cited article explains how cultural stereotypes shape and are shaped by our world. They define stereotypes as “producing expectations about what people are like and how they will behave”. Cultural stereotypes are resistant to change, and they are situational; they vary in intensity as a function of the social climate. At present, the cultural Western stereotype of an IT professional is not appealing to girls. With mass media such as the Big Bang Theory depicting those people with technical expertise as ‘nerds’, regardless of how funny the TV show may be, this kind of stereotypical depiction reinforces the social climate and conflates expectations that to work in this occupation you must conform to these unflattering (and unappealing for the most part) stereotypical characteristics. Of course this is not necessary in reality but our next generation of tech entrepreneurs are unlikely to realise this.

The irony is that Mayim Bialik who plays dark-haired Amy on the Big Bang Theory is actually a neuroscientist in real life.

What can you do to beat stereotype threat in the classroom?

  • Promote a-typical role models in ICT - both male and female
  • Be conscious of gender biases in teaching practices and curriculum
  • Promote ICT activities and tasks that have a clear social benefit
  • Discuss the historical contributions of females to our ICT industry

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Dr Jenine Beekhuyzen is an Australian social entrepreneur. She is the CEO of Adroit Research, the Founder of the nonprofit Tech Girls Movement, and is a University lecturer in Information Technology. She inspires school girls into STEM careers through free books celebrating the female tech role models in our society. To order free copies of Tech Girls Are Superheroes, visit www.techgirlsmovement.org and www.techgirlsaresuperheroes.org.