Tech Bros (and Girls): How Gendered Influences Shape Computer Science Stereotypes — Part 2

In part 1 of our exploration of gender and computer science, we focused on the demographic groups that tend to permeate the CS sphere on college campuses. 

But going beyond political, ethnic, and religious identity, what are some stereotypes associated with CS majors at different universities? How, if at all, are they statistically upheld in Marriage Pact data? And do these patterns still hold across gendered lines?

Before delving into the data, I turned to a few students to hear their perspectives. One Stanford student studying Mathematical and Computational Science (MCS) said there’s “definitely a ‘tech bro’ stereotype on campus.”

It’s kind of a mix of things. There’s the classic “nerd” stereotype who’s into tech and video games, but then mixed with that “alpha male” persona that comes with trying to make it big in Silicon Valley. Someone who’s big into networking, but maybe doesn’t have as many super close friends, that sort of thing.

Sammy, a recent graduate from UMich, noticed something slightly different on his campus. 

Without a doubt there’s a culture surrounding EECS—Electrical Engineering and Computer Science—on campus. Part of it is just that it’s one of the biggest majors, so everyone knows a bunch of people within it. 

A lot of people at Michigan double major, so some people are EECS and Math and EECS and Physics, so it’s pretty intertwined. But I think the stereotype, which has largely been met in my experience—is that EECS people are a little more socially awkward, a little more introverted, and a little more socially conservative as well. And the ambition aspect is certainly true. Every EECS major I know had a job lined up for post grad, whereas literally no one else I know did. 

A sophomore from UVA described a similar dynamic. 

I think the stereotype at UVA is that CS students are maybe a little more introverted. They might be interested in things associated with up-and-coming technology, like gaming, and their social lives may revolve a bit more around that. But I’ve also seen, especially in the larger social environment at a public school like UVA, that many CS students have values and interests that just reflect those of the whole student body. So I don’t think it’s always black and white. 

What about stereotypes for women in computer science? The same Stanford MCS major noted that female-identifying individuals may feel pressure to conform to some of the masculine norms surrounding tech in order to succeed—though this isn’t always the case. 

I haven’t seen as many stereotypes for girls in tech, but there are a few. From what I’ve experienced, I think some women may feel a bit of pressure to take on some more traditionally masculine traits—like the extreme ambition aspect, for example—because it can be hard to break into the field otherwise when the odds are stacked against you because of your gender. 

There might be a dynamic of feeling like you need to act like “one of the boys” in order to get ahead in the tech world, or be a bit more “tomboyish.” Or maybe it’s just that women who express themselves in ways that are perceived as more masculine see tech as a more natural fit for them because of the gendered implications there. 

Obviously, not everyone in CS is like this. I’ve seen a ton of diversity within the student body in terms of interests and backgrounds, and because CS is such a huge major at Stanford, you see that diversity among computer science students too regardless of gender. There are a lot of CS majors who are just super interested in tech and passionate about making an impact in the world, much like any other Stanford student. 

From these conversations, it seems that many of the stereotypes we observed in our 2020 analysis still hold true in practice. But when breaking it down by gender, we might expect to see some more nuance. 

Back to the data. (Some of the survey questions we analyzed weren’t included in Vanderbilt’s 2021 Marriage Pact questionnaire, so we added UVA as a fifth school to fill in the gaps).

The first couple of questions we looked at focused more on social progressivism: “I prefer politically incorrect humor” and “social activism is important to me.” The differences here were much more aligned with gender, though women in CS did tend to care less about social activism than their non-CS counterparts. 

Gender CS PC Humor
Gender CS Activism

However, when we looked at a few couple questions pertaining to ambition and personal gain, the script flipped. Though women in CS weren’t particularly inclined to “keep friends that are useful to them” at their respective schools, they were especially likely to want to make more money than their peers—even more so than men. 

Perhaps most notably, women in CS were significantly less likely to say they would be “okay with doing good without receiving recognition.” Given the historical erasure of female contributions to tech (and STEM fields as a whole), this attitude isn’t all that unsurprising. The desire to be recognized for your own hard work isn’t uncommon, but is especially strong among women who feel that their voices deserve to be heard. 

Gender CS Friends
Gender CS Money
Gender CS Do Good

The cultural, societal, and historical influences that shape computer science stereotypes and demographics, especially on college campuses filled with a wide array of young people striving to make an impact, are manifold and inextricably linked. While some aspects of CS culture have more to do with gender disparities than anything, others are a bit more complicated.

One thing’s for certain: as the field of CS grows, college students will continue to challenge and dismantle the barriers still present within the world of tech, paving the way for students of all identities to pursue careers in computer science.