“Nerd” stereotype discourages women from studying computer science
Report for the German government on women in STEM disciplines comes from Ulm

Ulm University

Dr Yves Jeanrenaud, visiting professor for gender studies at Ulm University, has written a report which has been incorporated into the Third Report on Gender Equality for the German federal government. In it, he addresses the question of why women continue to be under-represented in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The focus is on cultural as well as structural barriers such as STEM-related gender stereotypes and roll and career perceptions. Jeanrenaud’s analysis was included in the expert panel’s report, which will be presented to the Federal Minister of Gender Equality, Franziska Giffey, on 26 January.

The “nerd” stereotype is widespread, largely due to the perpetual portrayal in the media. What many people don’t realise, however, is that the image of a male computer geek discourages women from studying computer science. This is the conclusion that Dr Yyes Jeanrenaud comes to. The visiting professor for gender research in STEM & Med. at Ulm University has produced a fifty-page study addressing the cultural and structural factors that can discourage women from studying a STEM subject. In this easy-to-understand analysis prepared for the German government’s Third Report on Gender Equality, he also presents an overview of existing support efforts and provides further recommendations for steps that can be taken to increase the percentage of women in the STEM disciplines in the long run.

Women are not keen on becoming nerds

In comparison with other countries, the proportion of women studying in the STEM subjects in Germany is still rather low, at about one third. The proportion of women working in STEM professions is even more telling, at just one sixth. And this is despite the fact that digitalisation has yielded better job prospects and career opportunities than ever before, especially in the field of information and communication technology (ICT). But what do stereotypes and roll and career perceptions have to do with studying and career decisions? “Job profiles such as ‘engineer’ or ‘computer scientist’ still have a male association. In particular, stereotypical role models like nerds are almost exclusively used for young men. Many women are afraid of losing their ‘femininity’ if they venture into this male-occupied terrain. It is not unusual for them to decide against studying computer science, even if they are interested in the field”, explains Dr Yves Jeanrenaud.

Why is it like this? Starting in childhood, human beings are subject to gender-specific socialisation experiences, thus internalising certain expectations that are connected to their gender. “If a person’s internalised gender role does not match a traditional job profile or a specific professional culture, there is a certain danger that he or she will abandon the subject. This is just as true for men in nursing professions as it is for women in engineering or computer science fields”, Jeanrenaud claims. The visiting professor of sociology sees another gender effect in the so-called STEM aptitude self-assessment, which leads to girls gauging their performance in mathematics and science quite differently than boys, even if their performance is of a similar level.

Male-dominated professional cultures are not necessarily appealing to women

Girls and women tend to orient themselves on certain social patterns when choosing a career, striving for a profession in which they interact with other people or have the feeling that they are doing something meaningful. Many STEM professions, however, still produce the image of working in isolation with objects rather than people. Young people often have only a vague idea, or even no idea at all, of what technical professions are actually like. Yves Jeanrenaud thus believes it would be advisable to put more emphasis on the social significance of such professions and also question whether male-dominated professional cultures or a certain professional image might have a deterrent effect on women.

In this context, the gender researcher emphasises the role of “gatekeepers”, such as parents and teachers, who have a significant influence on the career path that a child will later take. Another important factor are positive role models who encourage girls to develop their interests in STEM subjects and pursue them with confidence. The proportion of women studying or working in STEM fields is steadily increasing, thanks to extensive efforts on the part of policymakers, businesses and educational institutions, but some of the figures remain significantly below what one would expect. The subject of mathematics, for instance, has a balanced gender ratio, but this is most likely due to a large number of women undertaking teacher training in this subject. A similar effect can be observed in the natural sciences, whereby the number of female students is nearly equal to the number of males, but this is also due to teacher training programmes. In the technical subjects, things look quite different, with 26.3 per cent of students being women. The field of computer science brings up the rear, with 22 percent female students.

Not every woman wants to reach the level of super hacker

“We definitely need more positive female role models!” urges Jeanrenaud. They don’t have to be nerdy female superheroes like the Swedish hacker Lisbeth Salander, or even math geniuses. As the STEM expert sees it, the subject of mathematics often gets overemphasised in computer science studies. “We especially need to get normally gifted girls excited about a degree in computer science or engineering”, says the gender researcher.

The PDF of the report entitled “STEM. Why not? On the under-representation of women in STEM fields, especially ICT, its origins, effectiveness of existing efforts and recommendations for action” is available here (in German only).

Text and mediacontact: Andrea Weber-Tuckermann
Translation: Kate Gaugler


[Translate to english:] Gastprofessor Yves Jeanrenaud
[Translate to english:] Gastprofessor Yves Jeanrenaud hat eine Expertise für das Gutachten zum Dritten Gleichstellungsbericht verfasst.
[Translate to english:] Physikerin am Instiut für Quantenoptik
[Translate to english:] Physikerin am Instiut für Quantenoptik. In bestimmten MINT-Bereichen ist der Frauenanteil noch immer vergleichsweise niedrig (Foto: Heiko Grandel / Universität Ulm)