Tech Bros (and Girls): How Gendered Influences Shape Computer Science Stereotypes — Part 1

Ask any male-identifying student at Stanford what his major is, and there’s a 25 percent chance he’ll say computer science. 

And it’s no wonder. Nestled right in the heart of Silicon Valley, the campus is teeming with the next generation of hungry, bright-eyed software engineers. Despite being pioneered by women back in the 40s, computer science has been a male-dominated field for decades—making it an attractive (and accessible) choice for male college students looking to break into the alluring world of tech. 

Back in 2020, we took a look at differences in social values between CS and non-CS majors at Stanford to tease apart the stereotype associated with studying computer science. Contrasted with their non-CS counterparts, we found that students in CS tended to place more value on ambition and financial success and slightly less value on social progressivism. 

But here’s the thing: most of these values differ across gendered lines as well. Based on aggregated Marriage Pact data from 2021-2022, male-identifying students are more likely to say they “do whatever it takes to get ahead,” prioritize “making more money than their peers,” and believe they are “smarter than most people” at their respective school. They also tend to “prefer politically incorrect humor” and care less about social activism. 

So we decided to revisit the differences between CS and non-CS majors with the following question in mind: to what degree are these disparities intrinsic to studying computer science, and to what degree do they simply reflect the higher prevalence of men in the field? We’ve heard of “tech bros”, but is there such a thing as a “tech girl?” And what do these differences look like when we step outside of Silicon Valley?

In our analysis, we narrowed in on four schools: Stanford, UMich, Columbia, and Vanderbilt. We first took a look at the percentage of men, women, and nonbinary students majoring in CS. The results weren’t all that surprising. 

Gender CS

Why the disparity? It's not that men simply have a biological aptitude for computer science. Extensive research at the intersection of STEM and gender reveals no evidence that men are simply hard-wired for careers in technology (not to mention that biology can differ widely among male-identifying individuals). It likely has more to do with societal associations of technology with masculinity that exclude female-identifying students from the field. One sophomore at UVA echoed this idea:

“Everything surrounding computer science and some of the culture revolving around tech is male-dominated. I think given some of the societal pressures that male-identifying individuals face, in terms of interests and hobbies, it seems very easy and natural for them to choose CS as a major. Like, ‘Oh yeah, this makes sense for me, I fit in here.’”

Next, we broke down a few other demographics by gender and CS vs non-CS, starting with ethnic identity.

We determined the percentage of men and women within each ethnic identity that major in CS, and found some moderate differences across the board. Students who identified as South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern/North African, and African tended to have a higher likelihood of being a CS major. More notable, however, was the fact that for almost every ethnicity, men were more likely than women to major in CS. 

Gender CS Ethnicity

We then took a look at political affiliation, where we saw a bit more variation between schools. At Stanford and Columbia, differences between men and women of the same political affiliation were generally more pronounced than differences between two different political affiliations. At Vanderbilt and UMich, this wasn’t always the case. 

Gender CS Political Affiliation

With a few exceptions, students who retain moderate political views—namely Libertarians, Independents, and Democrats—tended to be more drawn towards computer science than either of the political extremes. 

Next up: sexual orientation. Because traditional gender scripts and ideals of masculinity and femininity are so intertwined with sexuality, this one was a bit more difficult to tease apart. Across the board, heterosexual men were most likely to major in computer science, while homosexual men, heterosexual women, and bisexual women fell towards the bottom. 

Gender CS Sexual Orientation

While it’s difficult to make definitive claims, it’s likely that society's association of masculinity with tech tends to ostracize individuals who don’t fit the mold.

Last, we took a look at religious affiliation. Gender was once again the main divider here, though we did observe a few correlations between religion and the likelihood of studying CS. 

Gender CS Religion

At every school we looked at, Atheist and Agnostic students were significantly better represented in CS than Spiritual or Religious students. Perhaps the highly logical, analytic thinking required for computer science leaves little room for faith or spirituality (though the two are by no means mutually exclusive). 

So far, we’ve explored a bit of the interplay between students’ ethnic, political, and religious identities within the field of computer science. But beyond identity, what do some of the stereotypes of CS students at different universities actually look like? And how do they differ based on gender identity? 

Stay tuned for part 2, where we’ll revisit the question of differences in social values between men and women inside and outside of CS.