Megan Mitchell: Short skirt, long jacket

Tuesday, October 13, 2015 - 5:40pm

How many male engineers would have chosen to major in computer science if they knew they’d be working in a pink cubicle accompanied by cosmopolitan magazines and gossip over last week’s “Pretty Little Liars”? Your guess is probably the same as mine: not many.

Most girls have this perception that if your career choice is centered on technology, you’ll be working in a dusty 9-by-10 with Dwight from “The Office” as your coworker. And similarly, guys tend to view careers in writing as the path to a lifetime of Cosmopolitan gossip in the office, which probably explains why once we reach upper-level Spanish and English classes, we don’t see as many male classmates as we would in the required lower-level courses.

In a recent New York Times article, Eileen Pollack, a creative writing professor at the University, shared the reasons she left the scientific field early in her physics career: A workplace atmosphere that included sexist comments and teasing remarks on her gender identity created a general aversion to a career she loved. Though it’s true that gender discrimination still exists in male-dominated careers, Pollack suggested there could be a more overarching cause to her overall unhappiness in her workplace — and it’s not the guys.

In her article, Pollack outlines extensive research that has been ongoing for the past six years headed by Sapna Cheryan, a psychology professor at the University of Washington. The research has been exploring not only why women are unhappy once they’re in technology related fields, but what deters them from entering these careers in the first place.

Not surprisingly, these researchers have found that environments with primarily neutral décor such as coffee makers, art posters and plants were more likely to lead to females enrolling in computer science courses than environments with “Star Wars” posters and technology magazines could. Also, most women found engineering-related fields more attractive after talking with a “student” wearing a normal T-shirt who chatted about his or her social life over the student with a T-shirt bearing the quote “I code, therefore I am” who raved about technology the entire conversation.

I can relate to this sensitivity to environment: Personally, I study better with natural light and light chatter, while my roommate studies better with fluorescent bulbs and silence. My environment significantly affects my ability to perform a specific task.

In a similar sense, our attraction to a particular field and willingness to join that field relies heavily upon our perceptions of what the experience of going to work every day would be like. What would our coworkers be like to work with, and what kind of environment would we have to work in all day?

Even perceptions of what a computer science or physics major “looks like” can lead to fewer females planning on a career in science. It seems like our perception of what a scientist is hasn’t changed much in the past 70 years, as the first thing that comes to mind is usually that of a male with a microscope. On the other hand, English teachers are most often viewed as kind, older women. Not only can a workplace environment keep females from pursuing a STEM degree in college, but so could these stereotypes.

Instead of going into the technology field, such preconceptions could cause college females to concentrate on the majors they think they’d best “fit into,” such as English and Spanish. You could theoretically argue that they should have the strength or determination to continue in their studies despite these restrictions, but the same theory applies to men, who build off of the same stereotypes as women. What 15-year-old girl wants to be stereotyped as a man with nerd glasses, and conversely, what 15-year-old male wants to tell his friends he’s going to be “just like Mrs. Anderson”?  

Unfortunately, tech companies with predominantly male workforces will find themselves unable to grant positions to females if they never enter the field in the first place, despite females testing highly in these subjects. An updated view on what a career in technology entails is long overdue for a makeover, both internally and externally. The future depends on the decisions we will make today — changes that should accommodate all genders, not based on majority rules.

Megan Mitchell can be reached at umeg@umich.edu.