A lack of belonging, by default

Bias exists not only in people’s minds, but in physical settings. Recognizing this fact can help us answer an urgent question: Why are women so underrepresented in fields like computer science? 

In a recent paper, psychologists Sapna Cheryan and Hazel Rose Markus propose an interesting explanation, pointing to the presence of what they call “masculine defaults.” Masculine defaults exist, they write, “when aspects of a culture value, reward, or regard as standard, normal, neutral, or necessary characteristics or behaviors associated with the male gender role.”

Because I’m interested in the way outside-the-brain factors affect the way we think, I was particularly intrigued by what Cheryan and Markus have to say about how masculine defaults can manifest themselves in the physical spaces in which we learn and work.

“When an introductory computer science classroom contains objects stereotypically associated with computer science (e.g., video games, StarTrek posters), high school girls express less interest than high school boys in taking that class,” they write.  

“However, when the same classroom portrays a different image of the field (e.g., art posters, plants), high school girls’ interest in introductory computer science increases to meet the level of boys’ interest.”

Cheryan and Markus draw a comparison between the barriers to women presented by masculine defaults and the barriers to disabled people presented by non-accessible environments. “Recall what public buildings were like before the American with Disabilities Act,” they write. 

“Masculine defaults can be thought of as similar to heavy doors, or stairs and curbs without ramps. At first thought, such architectural features may seem standard and even necessary, but they were deemed discriminatory by the ADA, because they restrict access to and use of these facilities. Moreover, these barriers are symbolic—communicating who is found, belongs, and can succeed in that environment.” 

“Just as buildings that are not fully accessible hinder many people with disabilities, masculine defaults impede the entry and success of many women.” 

Here’s Cheryan and Markus’s paper:

“Masculine defaults: Identifying and mitigating hidden cultural biases”

Sapna Cheryan and Hazel Rose Markus, in Psychological Review



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