Most TV computer scientists are still white men. Google wants to change that.

SAN FRANCISCO — Google is calling on Hollywood to give equal screen time to women and minorities after a new study the Internet giant funded found that most computer scientists on television shows and in the movies are played by white men.

The problem with the hackneyed stereotype of the socially inept, hoodie-clad white male coder? It does not inspire underrepresented groups to pursue careers in computer science, says Daraiha Greene, Google CS in Media program manager, multicultural strategy.

“We are not trying to erase that image, but we want to diversify and show other people in these roles as well,” Greene said.

More than three-quarters of characters engaged with computer science are men and more than two-thirds are white, while 17.2% are Asian and 15.5% are from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, according to the study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Women of color are practically invisible in these roles. You would have to watch more than 85 hours of popular TV shows and movies to see a single instance of a Latina, black or mixed race female character discussing or engaging in computer science and, even then, you wouldn’t see a single Middle Eastern girl or woman, USC said.

Why does it matter? Google says the way computer science is portrayed in popular culture can profoundly shape career choices. The number of female forensic science majors jumped after the debut of the CSI television series as did the number of girls pursuing archery after the release of the movies Hunger Games and Brave. 

On the flip side, research has pointed to the decline of women enrolling in computer science in the 1980s with the popularity of movies such as War Games and Weird Science, whose coding heroes are young men. More recent shows, such as HBO’s Silicon Valley, have perpetuated the notion of tech as a geeky boys club, until the series’ most recent season introduced more women characters with input from Google.

In recent years, women and minorities have made modest gains in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood yet remain underrepresented in nearly every aspect of the entertainment industry. They are just as, if not even more, significantly underrepresented in Silicon Valley.

Google, which three years ago pledged to close the race and gender gap to make its workforce better reflect the panoply of people it serves around the globe, is still overwhelmingly male and employs very few African Americans and Hispanics. Tensions over that diversity drive are running high at Google, which last month fired an employee who wrote an internal memo suggesting men are better suited for tech jobs than women.

By advising content creators on computer science-related storylines for 10 television productions such as The Fosters and Halt and Catch Fire, and by making shows of its own on YouTube, Google says it’s hoping to show anyone can code.

More women in Google-influenced shows

The effort appears to be making headway. Nearly 25% of the characters engaged in computer science in shows that worked with Google were female, while none of the characters engaged in computer science in a matched sample of content were girls or women, according to the USC study.

Some 15.5% of computer science characters in series that worked with Google were not white or Asian while none of the characters in the matched sample were individuals from underrepresented groups.

Popular prime-time series and films — a different group of shows — had a higher percentage of underrepresented characters in computer science than the Google-influenced shows, but the percentages were still low.

Only two computer science characters from the prime-time shows were depicted from the LGBT community. Both were young adult, gay Asian men and neither was a series regular: Dr. Sanjay from The X-Files and Oliver Hampton from How to Get Away with Murder.

Girlfriends who code

As proof that positive portrayals in popular culture can influence career trajectories, Google points to Hyperlinked, an original series on Google’s YouTube Red. Girls who have seen the first season are 11% more likely to be interested in computer science careers than viewers who have not watched the show, according to a new study from Thicket Labs commissioned and paid for by Google.

The gains confirm that “we are stepping in the right direction to make some meaningful change,” says Nadine Zylstra, head of family entertainment and learning at YouTube Originals. “My hope for the future is that girls will see Hyperlinked and be so inspired by what they see that they seek out ways to integrate technology into their lives.”

Hyperlinked is the tale of five best friends or “soulsies” in middle school played by popular girl band L2M who use their programming chops to create and code a website for girls to share personal advice. Advisers on the YouTube series include Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and Kimberly Bryant, founder and CEO of Black Girls CODE, who helped make sure the show modeled accurate and positive messages for girls about computer science and their relationships with each other.

The result: The show is strongly linked with positive perceptions about computer science and the encouragement of friends, two of four major factors that drive a young girl’s decision to pursue the field, says Deepthi Welaratna, founder and CEO of Thicket Labs. The other two factors, where there was no statistically significant increase, was a girl’s perception of her own abilities and access and exposure to computer science.

Google hopes that reaching tweens at such a young age could help reverse a precipitous decline in women studying computer science. Today women get 18% of computer science degrees, down from 37% 30 years ago.

“The great takeaway from this is that we can have a measurable impact by having positive media portrayals of computer science careers and the people who are actually doing the coding. By diversifying and seeing more girl coders and coders from underrepresented groups we can really reshape the tech industry,” Welaratna said.

Significant challenges remain.

Depictions of computer science are still exceedingly rare in popular programming, even on TV shows and movies that have worked with Google, the study from the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg found.

And these depictions are still deeply mired in tired tropes that sends a message: This is what computer scientists are like: Unattractive, sloppy male loners. Few computer scientists are described as attractive and they frequently wear geeky or “hacker” garb, the study found. They don’t have romantic or family relationships. A bright spot: Female characters in shows and movies that worked with Google were more likely to be praised for their intelligence than for their appearance.

The portrayals don’t paint an aspiring picture of what technology can do. Relatively few computer scientists on TV are seen as having abilities that could benefit society, and the onscreen techies rarely mention how computer science can be used to help others, the study found.

“When stereotypes permeate the environment, theory and research suggest that this may dampen attraction to the field, especially for females,” says USC professor Stacy L. Smith, the study’s lead author.

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