A woman sits at her computer, working intently

Stereotypes, Gender Inequality, and the Importance of Voices to Women in a Computer Science Dominant School

Stereotypes, Gender Inequality, and the Importance of Voices to Women in a Computer Science Dominant School

When I first shared my acceptance into Carnegie Mellon University as a first-year student with my relatives, their mindsets towards me shifted in all but a second. Before I knew it, I was automatically labeled as the “smart,” “computer science” girl who got accepted into a top-tier engineering school. I was proud of being labeled as “smart,” but felt uncomfortable being matched with a major that I never did well in. I guiltily nodded with an uncomfortable smile and agreed with their preconceived notions, because I did not want to correct their predictions at a moment of celebration.

The underrepresentation of women in the areas of STEM has gained attention from countless educators and researchers for many years. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has not been afraid to give women a voice, to listen to women, and let women take the lead, enabling them to play a valuable role in changing that culture. For example, Women@SCS is an organization launched by CMU to create opportunities for women to influence the development of new technology. The institutional investment that provides funding, guidance, and endorsement for programs developed through Women@SCS has made it become a valuable resource, while strengthening the image of women in computer science and challenging the stereotypes about who fits the field. However, there is still a lot of progress left to be made.

Students and future technologists have access to mentorship through Women@SCS.

According to UNIGO, an organization that hosts reviews of colleges, a common stereotype for the students at CMU is that undergraduates are viewed as “nerdy, study-hard students that perpetually have homework piled high and deteriorating social lives… spending endless hours

computer programming.” I soon realized that although I felt invalidated by the stereotypes that the CMU community possessed, even the women in computer science and other STEM majors—who were benefiting from them—were not immune to being brought down by their labels from external society. In their case, these labels were not the stereotypes that came with CMU’s prowess in STEM, but gender stereotypes. For all young women attending Carnegie Mellon, STEM majors or not, the prejudice in the ways we are viewed is a double-edged sword. To analyze such inequalities experienced by female students at CMU, I ran surveys for Carnegie Mellon undergraduate women to analyze their experiences, and compare the computer science dominance at CMU and male dominance in STEM workplaces.

From a short survey dedicated to analyzing the experiences of undergraduate women at Carnegie Mellon, and seeing if they face stereotypes and prejudice at the intersection of gender inequality and discrimination based on major, more than half (57.1%) of the total respondents remarked that they felt as if Carnegie Mellon University does not have an equal representation for all majors and classes. After proceeding to inquire students as to whether they ever faced stereotype issues and were assumed by others that they got accepted into Carnegie Mellon as a STEM major, the percentages skyrocketed to 71.4%.

This pie chart shows the percentage of people surveyed who experienced stereotype issues.

Due to the limited number of responses, this survey may not be able to reflect the thoughts of the entire student body at Carnegie Mellon University. Furthermore, since the majority of the respondents may not have experienced a true professional workplace as undergraduates, respondents claimed that they have not yet experienced gender inequality in the workplace as a woman. However, they seemed to carry a belief that the non-STEM majors have a negative reputation in Carnegie Mellon.

“There were incidents where people assumed I got into CMU because they needed to fill a female student quota.”

“I’ve also had people think I must be majoring in business because I am a girl.”

“I’m an Indian woman, and somehow that fits into their stereotype of STEM majors. When I tell them I am a business major, they seem shocked or disappointed.”

Gender difference approaches often argue that there are strong disparities in the way girls and boys, or men and women, relate to the field; gender differences that work in favor of men and against women. From this survey, we can draw conclusions that although CMU puts more emphasis on the STEM courses, it is still evident that the school gives wide ranges of opportunities for women and for students in other majors. However despite the effort, it seems inevitable that the vast majority of respondents have experienced stereotypes being inflicted upon them, that either had correlations to gender inequality or incorrect major assumptions. The problems weren’t just the typical stereotype assumptions, but more importantly, the emotions of shock or disappointment that trailed behind the women who rejected the notion of them. For female undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon, if you are in one of the STEM majors that Carnegie Mellon has pride in, you still face the pressure of matching up to your male counterparts. However, if you are not a STEM major and are in a field where there is a more equal gender balance, you still can’t avoid stereotypes that the culture at CMU has inflicted upon the students: that the non-STEM majors are inferior.

Despite these ongoing issues, not all hope is lost. There are, of course, people working for a brighter future. In spite of unfair incidents, The School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University emphasizes that “computer science's future depends on attracting people who aren't white male gamers--and making women and other under-represented groups feel less alone.” Also, a benefit that comes from the lack of female representation in STEM is that for women who are high-achieving in STEM and have accomplishments trailing behind them, we often respect them as figures who have had a harder path to get to where they are now compared to their male counterparts. However, even though these powerful women make us proud with their representation, hate is just as strong as love. Successful women are scrutinized even more, with their small mishaps being blown up into them being seen as incapable. Even the most successful of us are not immune to the stereotypes upon us.

In conclusion, the persistent gender gap in computer science is well-documented but there is less sharing of the success stories. By bringing attention to perspectives from Carnegie Mellon, I hope to illustrate issues that the field of computing can tackle to become more inclusive.