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The Stereotypes, Identity and Belonging Lab at the University of Washington is now a member of the blogging community! We will be using Decoded as a forum for disseminating our research on women and computer science and discussing current issues related to the field of computer science including: women's involvement and how computer science is changing the way we live. We would love to hear your thoughts and comments on our posts.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Embrace Your Inner Geek: A New Way to Get Women Engaged in Computer Science

It is not often that you hear a woman proudly describe herself as a geek, but that is exactly what Marissa Mayer did on a recent NPR broadcast. Mayer defies and embraces computer science stereotypes, managing to be both girly and geeky at once. Not only has she had a successful career as a computer scientist, but she has also become somewhat of a fashion icon, profiled in both Vogue and Glamour. As a result of her success and counter-stereotypicality, some have posited Mayer as a potential role model for young women pursuing computer science. 

Indeed, Marissa Mayer has expressed her desire to see more women in her field. Following our research in the Stereotypes, Identity and Belonging Lab (SIBL), we believe that stereotypes are a huge deterrent to women for entering computer science. As a result, many of our interventions center on debunking these stereotypes (see our Debunking Stereotypes brochure). Mayer, however, takes a different approach; instead of demonstrating to girls that you don’t have to be a geek to be a computer scientist, Mayer wants to broaden the geek image to include women. In order to accomplish this, she is redefining what it means to be a geek.

For Mayer, being a geek means that you are passionate about what you are doing. So how exactly is telling girls it’s OK to be a geek going to draw more of them into computer science? Well, Mayer believes that with the increasing ubiquity of the internet and technology, girls are able to imagine more diverse applications for computer science than ever before, applications, which just might peak their interest enough to get them to take a class in C++ or Javascript. Girls can then embrace their "inner geek" knowing that they are using computer science to pursue something they are passionate about. While Mayer’s proposed redefinition of the geek stereotype provides an alternative way to get women involved in computer science, some important questions remain:

Do we need more role models like Mayer to change the way we think about geeks? Does Mayer's femininity make it more acceptable for her to be geeky? Will girls feel the need to assert their femininity to feel comfortable wearing the geek label? Is changing the geek image simply turning a negative stereotype into a positive stereotype? Why keep the geek label at all, couldn’t we just expose women to the increasingly diverse applications of computer science to get more women interested in the field?

Finally, what do you believe is the best way to increase women’s participation in computer science?

Posted by: Sarah

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