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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.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Male Role Models Inspiring Women in Computer Science!

Renowned for its leadership in academics, Harvard University is once again boasting impressive statistics. In their April 20th, 2011 edition, the university’s newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, reported that a record number of female students are choosing to major in computer science, with numbers reaching as high as 41% female. Harvard students seem to have overcome the stereotype that women “just aren’t cut out for the major.” And what could be contributing to these changes? We suggest:

Classes that break stereotypes of who belongs in computer science.

The university’s amazing progress is due in part to Computer Science Lecturer, David J. Malan. Malan teaches CS50, the notoriously difficult introductory computer science course. The Harvard Crimson writes that the marked increase in females choosing to major in Computer Science has correlated strongly with increased enrollment in this introductory course. Students in the class report that the course teaches them computer science in an accessible, fun, and entertaining way.
Malan’s success at encouraging both female students supports research findings in our lab.  Although many believe that role models must be of the same gender as those they wish to inspire, a recent article out of our lab shows that male and female role models can have an equal influence on inspiring women to consider majoring in computer science. Dismissing Malan and other men as effective role models to women because of their gender could have proven to be a grave  mistake.  
What in particular makes Malan such a good role model? One factor that our research suggests is important is that Malan does not fit the stereotype of a computer science ‘nerd.’ This professor worked part-time as a forensic investigator throughout graduate school while volunteering as an EMT, a passion he still pursues today.
When considering how to best overcome stereotypes that discourage women from entering computer science, it is important to remember that commonly held assumptions, such as who makes the best role model, can get in the way of progress. Relying less on these assumptions and more on evidence provided in the classroom and in the lab (i.e. focusing more on the stereotypicality of role models) could lead to a nation-wide increase in the number of female computer science majors.
Interested in seeing Malan’s teaching style? Check out a video of CS50 through OpenCourseware at:
What do you think? Do you know of other male role models? Are there times in which a female role model might be better for recruiting women?
Posted by: Caitlin 


  1. I think it's great that stereotypes are being debunked and that it's leading more people to be interested in the field who might otherwise not be. Simply having a non-stereotypical role model might initially inspire interest- rather than confirming a preconceived idea about computer science as portrayed by the role model representing it- and lead to some level of personal investigation, which could develop into further interest. Getting people in the door could be a key issue, and having a non-stereotypical role model could prompt people to inquire.

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