The Effect of Stereotypes on Female Exit Rates in Computer Science Within the United States

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One cause of the “leaky pipeline” with the IT stream is the stereotypical image that society holds for a computer scientist.

Plenty of research has demonstrated that there are significantly fewer women than men in computer science because of what is known as the “leaky pipeline.” This “leaking pipeline” is partly due to the stereotypical identity of a computer scientist, someone who is male, socially isolated, “geeky” that excludes women from pursuing this area of study. The use of these identities can be seen in North American and Western cultures, and more specifically, within the United States. Moreover, this kind of stereotype threat can be harmful as it prevents women from believing they belong in the industry of computer science[1].

What is the “Leaky Pipeline”?

The “Leaky Pipeline” has been a scholarly discourse tool to describe women losing interest, leaving, or altogether avoiding STEM career paths from grade school through to graduate and post-graduate school. The underrepresentation of women seen in STEM fields demonstrates this “leaky pipeline” especially as this has led women who are incredibly motivated and confident with their work in science and technology to steer clear and even leave the field because they have less desire to work in an environment with a disproportionately low ratio[2]. One study conducted in the US illustrates how females at a middle school or high school education level are negatively affected by gender-biased male classmates and the stereotypes that they hold, which has resulted in a decreased likelihood of these young females majoring in engineering or science[3]. In fact, results have proven that if more confident female peers were in the class, females would be more likely to major in a STEM related field[3].

The “leaky pipeline” has been addressed as an issue due to the loss of “budding talent in the supply pipeline,” and the lack of acknowledgement underrepresented women have in STEM fields[4].

The “Leaky Pipeline” Seen in Computer Science

The “leaking” of the pipeline starts when females decide not to enter the IT field in the first place. This can be seen at the secondary level of education as girls are much less likely to register for computer programming classes than their male counterparts, and they express less interest in pursuing a degree in this area of study. Furthermore, young women may avoid the field because of the suggestions taken from role models such as parents or teachers who believe that computer science is tailored more for males[5]. In addition, studies have shown that math grades are more relevant to females than males as these grades have a more positive effect on a female’s self-assessment[6]. The reasoning for this is that a woman’s mindset towards their mathematical ability is lower because they have less confidence in their capabilities than men and as such, fewer women would pursue a career in computer science if they have low self-confidence for the essential skills needed for the career (like math)[6].

By the time the college level is reached, males are four times more likely than females to be interested in majoring in computer science[5]. Fewer women are graduating with a degree in computer science today than in the mid-eighties[7]. As of 2015, there were 18% of women in the computer science field, and in the space of 15 years, women in this field have declined 10%[8].

In the United States, although approximately 59% of science degrees are earned by women[5], only a third of the computer science graduates are women and that further leakage of the pipeline is seen after earning a computer science degree[7].

The Stereotypical Image of a Computer Scientist

The stereotypical image of a computer scientist would be of a more masculine figure who is  “geeky,” socially inactive, and always sitting in the dark room while on the computer at all hours of the day

Societies have held the stereotype that men are more capable with computers than women, which enforces the idea that a computer scientist should be male[9]. In part, the media is responsible for depicting a computer scientist as an Asian or Caucasian male who is very invested in the life of technology. Some television series that highlight this stereotype are “The Big Bang Theory” and “Silicon Valley”[5]. This way that television incorrectly describes a scientist profoundly influences both male and female middle school children and how they imagine a scientist’s characteristics[10]. Dutch adolescents have this image that to be in IT, one needs to be behind a computer all day, isolated from society. This idea has been observed in the US and has driven many females away from the field[5]. The stereotypes depict a computer scientist as an introvert who rarely needs to socialize, but in reality, the industry requires plenty of communication, collaboration, and interaction[11]. Moreover, those in the field of computer science have the highest belief (compared to other fields like biology and psychology) that the skills required are inherent and are more of innate ability[12]. This idea might then steer women away from the IT industry as they may believe they lack the necessary abilities[6].

Women Left Out

The stereotypical image of a computer scientist can have adverse effects on women through discrimination. For instance, employers may believe that if a woman is less skilled than a man when programming, she may be less efficient at getting the work completed and for that reason, an employer may choose to hire a man in her place[8]. Research has shown that stereotypes of those in the IT sector have the most significant effect on females who have fully invested in the field (like those who have obtained a major in computer science)[5]. There’s this expectation of gender segregation where men should have a preference for roles that require masculine traits, while women are then expected to choose occupations that utilize the more feminine traits[8]. The impact these stereotypes have had has led women to turn down job opportunities because they felt they do not belong in the computer science environment[1]. Therefore if steps were taken to eradicate these stereotypes, the more comfortable women would feel in an IT work environment[1], and as such these measures would play a major role in preventing the “leaky pipeline” from continuing within the computer science industry.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Cheryan, Sapna, et al. "Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 97, no. 6, 2009, pp. 1045-1060.
  2. Murphy, Mary C., Claude M. Steele, and James J. Gross. "Signaling Threat: How Situational Cues Affect Women in Math, Science, and Engineering Settings." Psychological Science, vol. 18, no. 10, 2007, pp. 879-885.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Riegle-Crumb, Catherine, and Karisma Morton. "Gendered Expectations: Examining how Peers Shape Female Students' Intent to Pursue STEM Fields." Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 8, 2017, pp. 329.
  4. Resmini, Marina. "The ‘Leaky Pipeline." Chemistry – A European Journal, vol. 22, no. 11, 2016, pp. 3533-3534.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Cheryan, Sapna, Allison Master, and Andrew N. Meltzoff. "Cultural Stereotypes as Gatekeepers: Increasing Girls’ Interest in Computer Science and Engineering by Diversifying Stereotypes." Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 6, 2015.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Correll, Shelley J. "Gender and the Career Choice Process: The Role of Biased Self‐Assessments." The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 106, no. 6, 2001, pp. 1691-1730.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Sassler, Sharon, Katherine Michelmore, and Kristin Smith. "A Tale of Two Majors: Explaining the Gender Gap in STEM Employment among Computer Science and Engineering Degree Holders." Social Sciences (Basel), vol. 6, no. 3, 2017, pp. 69.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Thébaud, Sarah, and Maria Charles. "Segregation, Stereotypes, and STEM." Social Sciences (Basel), vol. 7, no. 7, 2018, pp. 111.
  9. Koch, Sabine C., Stephanie M. Müller, and Monika Sieverding. "Women and Computers. Effects of Stereotype Threat on Attribution of Failure." Computers and Education, vol. 51, no. 4, 2008, pp. 1795-1803.
  10. Steinke, Jocelyn, et al. "Assessing Media Influences on Middle School–Aged Children's Perceptions of Women in Science using the Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST)." Science Communication, vol. 29, no. 1, 2016;2007;, pp. 35-64.
  11. Rommes, Els, et al. "'I'M NOT INTERESTED IN COMPUTERS': Gender-Based Occupational Choices of Adolescents." Information, Communication & Society: Gender and ICT, vol. 10, no. 3, 2007, pp. 299-319.   → not scholarly peer reviewed
  12. Leslie, S. -., et al. "Expectations of Brilliance Underlie Gender Distributions Across Academic Disciplines." Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), vol. 347, no. 6219, 2015, pp. 262-265.