Women tend to be less attracted to computer science compared to men. Among the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), computer science probably has the greatest gender gap, with more men in the industry than women. This is because women are less likely to enrol in basic computer science courses, according to a press release.

A study done by researchers from the University of Washington sought to determine if the low number of female enrollees in computer science courses has something to do with certain stereotypes, such as a learning environment that appealed more to males and appeared less inviting to females. The study also determined if changing the stereotyped learning environment and making it appear less "geeky" will attract more female students.

A total of 269 high school students ages 14 to 18 years old were involved in the study. They were given questions regarding their interest in computer science, their feeling of belongingness in a computer science class and their perception of whether they meet the computer science stereotype.

"This is the earliest age we've looked at to study stereotypes about computer science," lead study author Allison Master said, according to the press release. "It's a key age group for recruitment into this field, because girls in their later adolescence are starting to focus on their career options and aspirations."

The participants were then given photos of two different classrooms. One looked like the typical computer science classroom designed with computer parts, while the other one did not appear like the stereotypical computer science classroom and was designed with some artwork.

The results showed that the female students were three times more likely to enroll in a computer science course if the learning environment did not look like the stereotypical computer science classroom. The male students' interest in computer science did not change whether the classroom was stereotypical or not.

The authors concluded that high school girls avoid computer science courses because stereotypes in the field make them feel like they do not belong.

"Identity and a sense of belonging are important for adolescents," study co-author Andrew Meltzoff said. "Our approach reveals a new way to draw girls into pipeline courses. It is intriguing that the learning environment plays such a significant role in engaging high school girls in computer science."

"Providing them with an educational environment that does not fit current computer science stereotypes increases their interest in computer science courses and could provide grounds for interventions to help reduce gender disparities in computer science enrollment," the authors wrote.

The study was published in the Aug. 17 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology.