The Stereotypes, Identity, & Belonging Lab

Meet the Stereotypes, Identity, & Belonging Lab (SIBL) at the University of Washington, headed by psychologist Sapna Cheryan.

In the Stereotypes, Identity, & Belonging Lab (SIBL) at the University of Washington, we are interested in understanding how people’s choices and behaviors are shaped by cultural factors, such as stereotypes and social identity. Our lab is primarily concerned with developing and empirically testing theories that inform current social problems, particularly inequality and prejudice, in the hopes of bringing attention to these problems and working towards feasible solutions.

The top item on their news page at the moment is a newspaper piece by Jennifer Walsh on the harm done by stereotypes about scientists, which cites Sapna Cheryan. It starts with Bill Nye on Dancing With the Stars.

Not all scientists wear glasses and bow-ties. Not all of them spend their entire day in the lab. Scientists aren’t all older white men like Nye.

Scientists are mothers and fathers, rockers and rock climbers, some of us have tattoos and pink-dyed hair.

Some scientists are even females and minorities. There is still a gender gap in the sciences, and by focusing on popularizing one white male example of a “scientist” and his beakers we are missing the true diversity of both the sciences and scientists.

In the media, we think of the characters on the “Big Bang Theory” when we think of scientists. These nerds, who are usually the butt of jokes that aren’t even funny, also reinforce these science stereotypes. A bone of contention in the nerd community, where many want to promote science to lay people, but hate that it’s always portrayed based on stereotypes.

A study just this year suggested that that stereotype is what’s holding women back from science, according to GeekWire:

New research out of the University of Washington, which found that women don’t choose careers in computer science because of the “nerd” stereotype in the media.

UW psychologist Sapna Cheryan ran two studies to find out if the lack of women in tech was due to their disinterest in the topic, or other reasons. First, she asked 254 non-computer science college students to describe CSE majors. They were perceived to be “incompatible with the female gender role, such as lacking interpersonal skills and being singularly focused on computers.”

After reading an article about a non-stereotypical computer science major, their interest in the topic increased significantly, as seen in the graph below:

computer science stereotypes and women

If we want to encourage diversity in the sciences we have to get rid of these old-white-man scientist stereotypes. The portrayal of the scientist as an older white man puts women and minorities at a disadvantage.

This is why “equity feminism” is bullshit. It claims that everything is already fixed, the playing field is already even, the opportunity is already equal. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.


  1. smrnda says

    I *love* research like this, not because I love the conclusions (I don’t) but because it documents the real harm of stereotypes. The idea that people can freely choose not to be affected by them turns out to be as false as whether or not you could *choose* not to be affected by the weather, pollution, or hot or cold.

  2. says

    As someone in a technical/CS-sorta profession and company (I will name neither), I can honestly say I find the general sameness of my colleagues a bit… meh.

    And okay, no, maybe that isn’t really fair. They’re okay people, so well as I know them, anyway (I work remote; not socially that close, really), and they are distinct people; I guess it’s not really nice to smear ’em all out as so much the same like that. And they aren’t all that dreadfully geeky, either. Got some pretty serious mountain bikers, snowboarders, surfers; one of ’em’s trying to self-publish crime fiction; I guess it all counts for something. They are mostly pretty white, tho’ we’ve some Arab, some Hispanic, fair number of Indian types, too…

    But they’re mostly guys, all right. And it gets a bit… I dunno. Melba, is the word comes to mind. Beige. Bland. Fabric offices, a lot of Y chromosomes around. I don’t really like going into the offices much, even tho’ sometimes the remote gig does get you talking to the walls and to the cats, and I think that’s mostly why. I was working from a coffee shop for a bit this morning, and there was this youngish woman at the next table doing tech support of some kind remotely over her cell, and just hearing this from the next table, just got to thinking: we need more of that, more variety, is all it is. Worked with one black woman for a while a bit a few years ago, too, in a sort of temporary transfer thing before she moved onto another department, and it was the same thing. She’s different, a bit, and different is just… nice. We could use some different around here. I’m finding the whole guy colour scheme a bit tedious.

    I mean, I grew up in a small, mostly pretty white town. I moved out pretty much because I had to in order to find decent work, but one of the perks of doing so was that variety. When the workplace gets that sameness, it’s just a bit, I dunno… depressing, even. Like you moved out of the small town, and it came after you anyway. Might also be part of my general attitude about my work polluting this right now, too, but I almost wish they’d warned me about this, going into this (not that I shouldn’t have known, I guess)–just told me, listen, you will be working with a lot of guys. Guys mostly like you, I’m afraid. If you’re okay with that, you’ll be okay. If you figure you might start to find that a bit grating, well, hey, you might want to think about this.

  3. says

    This is why “equity feminism” is bullshit. It claims that everything is already fixed, the playing field is already even, the opportunity is already equal. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

    Substitute “libertarianism (USA flavor)” for “equity feminism” and the statement is just as true. Indeed, there is a lot of overlap between self-described libertarians and self-described “equity feminists.” I bet a Venn diagram of the two would look nearly like a circle.

    And we all know what libertarian philosophy is worth, right?

    Pretty cool that there’s a lab specifically set up to test social science hypotheses though. What was that again about social sciences not being “real’ science? Mm hmm.

  4. Jackie Papercuts says

    I’m just happy that there are other people who don’t think The Big Bang Theory is funny. That show stinks to high heaven.

  5. ugfabian . says

    “The portrayal of the scientist as an older white man puts women and minorities at a disadvantage.”

    There is a difference between being denied an opportunity, and not having role-models or positive information about said opportunity. The answer to this issue isn’t less Bill Nye, it’s more positive exposure to scientific careers.

  6. arthur says

    The BBC occasionally feature documentaries by physicist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock (British woman of Nigerian descent) as an alternative to the ubiquitous Brian Cox. Here’s a really good one on YouTube about the moon.

    Maggie talks briefly about how she doesn’t fit the stereotype here, in a piece designed to inspire young British children, here:

  7. Minnow says

    “What was that again about social sciences not being “real’ science? Mm hmm.”

    Hopefully you are right and this lab will get some good data, but social science has earned the ‘real science’ scepticism in the past (it doesn’t mean the social sciences are worthless), especially with very poor experimental technique. I wonder whether any of the experiments in this lab will confound the expectations of the researchers? It will be interesting to see.

  8. sailor1031 says

    Asking undergrads in Computer Sci. is one thing. Did they see how many women are in the Information Systems program? The two are quite different. When I workd in IT there were as many women as men in the IS area (Systems analysis, business programming, IT project management etc) areas. There’s much more to IT than merely computer science – which to be honest in the early 1990s took a retrograde nosedive back into 1960s nerdishness of 1st & 2nd generation type languages and operating systems that only a geek would want to use, instead of continuing to progress the technology.

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