This week's New York Times magazine offers up an interesting explanation for the gender gap in programming: It's a pop culture problem.

Despite the fact that engineering can offer "the highest incomes and most flexibility," the number of women in the field has dropped. In 1990-91, 29 percent of bachelor's degrees in CS went to women. Twenty years later, it sank to 18 percent. Even on applications to Girls Who Code, the most common aspiration cited is forensic science.

. . . few if any of the girls have ever met anyone in that field, but they’ve all watched “CSI,” “Bones” or some other show in which a cool chick with great hair in a lab coat gets to use her scientific know-how to solve a crime. This so-called “CSI” effect has been credited for helping turn forensic science from a primarily male occupation into a primarily female one.

Using that same logic, experts say computer science lacks the equivalent TV or movie role models for women.

Nearly every tech or nonprofit executive I spoke with mentioned their hope that “The Social Network” has improved the public’s perception of programmers. They also mentioned how bummed they were that the hit film didn’t include more prominent female characters. Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences now offers a program called the Sciences and Entertainment Exchange that gives writers and producers free consultation with all kinds of scientists. Natalie Portman’s character in the superhero movie “Thor,” for instance, started out as a nurse. After a consultation with scientists introduced through the exchange, she became an astrophysicist.

On one hand, it's not like Thor has inspired thousands of young boys to pick up a hammer in the hopes of pursuing a career as an ancient Nordic superhero. But I've heard enough founders and startup aspirants reference The Social Network not to dismiss the theory entirely. And for young women, that movie offered up two abysmal examples: bathroom accessory and dorm room accessory. Unless you also count the luddite who just doesn't grok it.

It's been 18 years, enough time has passed for a Hackers remake, right?

[Image via bicoastalbitchin]