Stereotypes & Ambient Belonging
I recently attended a private showing of the documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap. Filmmaker Robin Hauser Reynolds found inspiration for the project as she observed her daughter struggle to stick it out in a male dominated computer science course in college. In the film, you hear directly from young school girls, women computer science educators, and female techies from companies ranging from Pixar to Pinterest to Pivotal. The messages speak of the gender gap in tech with a wide range of topics from cultural bias and stereotypes to perseverance and alienation. Reynolds talks about women experiencing issues with "ambient belonging" and elaborates, "Simply being in a place where you see no role models – and since you cannot be what you cannot see – you often give up". We agree wholeheartedly with this perspective at Couragion – and our role models speak emblematically and loudly on the topic.
But I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the theory around ambient belonging. Let’s start by unpacking the statement a bit. Ambient in this context means relating to your immediate surroundings. Belonging means to have the proper qualifications, especially social qualifications, to be a member of a group. So what makes someone relate to their surroundings? And what social qualifications are required to be comfortable in the role of a female techie?
Dr. Sapna Cheryan from the University of Washington has produced some meaningful research about how stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. She identifies barriers that prevent women from developing interest in the field by looking at socially symbolic objects that embody and communicate group member stereotypes. These very objects are what prospective computer science students are using to evaluate the group and if seen as incompatible with their identity they will avoid it.
I’ve recently seen first-hand how some of the leading educational institutions are creating new classrooms and spaces, evolving their degree programs and teaching styles, and even changing course descriptions to attract more female enrollments. But it doesn’t just end in our classrooms. The evidence suggests that the environment plays a bigger role than we think when women are selecting teams, companies, and jobs too. Unconscious bias might just be lurking in the classroom and the workplace. Dr. Cheryan provides compelling evidence for the power of environments in signaling who belongs.
Can it be as rudimentary as rethinking, redesigning, and recreating the physical environments? Could this provide a platform for more women entering the field, more diversity, and a shift in the stereotypes themselves?