Professor Sapna Cheryan led her student into a small classroom in Stanford University’s computer science building. Star Wars posters adorned the walls, discarded computer parts and cans of Coke clustered on a table, and a life-size bust of Spock perched on the desk. “Sorry about the mess,” Cheryan said. “Just ignore that stuff, it’s not part of our study. Here’s your questionnaire. Let me know when you’re done.”
The student took a dubious look at her surroundings and raised her pencil to answer the question: “How interested are you in computer science?”
Cheryan, now a psychologist at the University of Washington, has placed students in situations like this for nearly five years. She has found that women rate themselves as less interested in computer science than men in the “geek room” described above. But in a room decorated more neutrally with art posters, nature photos, and water bottles, their interest levels were about the same.
A few years ago one of our GenYES advisors told me that he was very proud of the fact that his student tech support team was over 50% female. But it wasn’t always that way. He said that it took time and effort to change the culture of the team, but the thing that made the most difference was that he remodeled the “tech room”. He took down the video game posters, brought in a couch, and cleaned it up. His advice to other advisors was that this little thing mattered. He wasn’t sure at the time it was a big deal, but now he’s sure it changed everything.
What does your classroom or clubroom say about who belongs there? And if you aren’t sure, ask some students.