Schema Disjunction Among Computer Science Students

Schema Disjunction Among Computer Science Students

Rebecca L. Crane (University of Colorado at Boulder, USA), Liane Pedersen-Gallegos (University of Colorado at Boulder, USA), Sandra Laursen (University of Colorado at Boulder, USA), Elaine Seymour (University of Colorado at Boulder, USA) and Richard Donohue (University of Colorado at Boulder, USA)
Copyright: © 2006 |Pages: 5
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-815-4.ch171
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Abstract

In her book Why So Slow?: The Advancement of Women, Virginia Valian describes a schema as “a set of implicit, or nonconscious, hypotheses about … differences.” (Valian, 1998). Individuals use schemas about particular social groups to guide their interpretations of and behavior toward members of those groups. However, problems can arise when multiple conflicting schemas are applied to the same person. This phenomenon, schema disjunction, is particularly well illustrated by the situation of female undergraduate computer science majors. Extensive interviews with introductory computer science students of both genders reveal a significant discontinuity between their schema of women and their schema of successful computer scientists. Despite professing conscious egalitarian beliefs about the ability of women to do computer science, many students unconsciously hold disjunct schemas that help facilitate an environment hostile to novice women and may deter them from pursuing computer science careers (Pedersen-Gallegos, Laursen, Seymour, Donahue, Crane, DeAntoni, et al., 2004). Valian argues that, starting in childhood, we acquire schemas through observation of adult behavior toward others. Schemas are generally more inclusive than stereotypes and carry fewer negative connotations: They are not necessarily unfair or pejorative. In fact, schemas are a normal way that humans use categorization to negotiate our environments. However, Valian also explains that schemas can become unjustly misrepresentative of individuals due to errors that creep in during their development. These errors are then reinforced during maintenance and application of those erroneous schemas. These generalized beliefs about certain types of people are often unarticulated, and may be even consciously disavowed by those who hold them. Yet people can still operate unconsciously on the basis of ingrained schemas while remaining unaware of them. Because schemas color our interpretations of people we interact with, they also shape how we behave towards those people. We treat each other, and ourselves, in accordance with our schematic expectations. When these expectations are unfairly pejorative, they can have a damaging impact on the self-concepts and lives of the people to whom they are applied, often resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Echoing Cooley’s (1902) classic notion of the “looking-glass self,” Valian describes this phenomenon with a focus on gender schemas: All of us—boys and girls, men and women—become in part what others expect us to become, thereby confirming hypotheses about the different nature of males and females. While no one is infinitely malleable, no one is completely indifferent to others. One way we learn who we are is through others’ responses to us. As men and women, we also develop expectations for our own behavior, based on characteristics we believe we possess. We then explain our successes and failures in terms of those abilities and traits. (Valian, 1998)

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