By Melissa Wilson Craw, TECgirls contributor
Across the UK there is a serious threat to gender equality in the tech sector. While many companies are trying to employ more women, there is a supply problem that starts much earlier than the job market. Girls are not taking computer science courses. One study found that of the students taking computer science courses at GCSE level, only 21% were girls. This is even worse locally: in Cornwall, girls only make up 13% of computer science students at the GCSE level.
But we also know that girls love technology. Half of all ten year olds have a smartphone, and almost half of all girls aged 5-15 play games online. Why, then, are girls not choosing to learn more about how the computers, tablets and phones they use every day work?
TECGirls invited Hayley Leonard of the Raspberry Pi Foundation to give a webinar on this very topic. We've written up the key takeaways from this session (below) and will also shortly be posting a video of the session and a helpful infographic.
The psychological root of the problem
She began by positioning this particular problem in a psychological theory called the Expectancy-Value Theory. This theory seeks to explain why people make the choices they do. In short, it comes down to their expectancies (how well they think they will do) and their values (how useful, enjoyable or important they think something is). These two factors in turn influence how persistent a person will be in a particular pursuit, how well they perform at the tasks involved, and will even influence big life choices.
In the case of girls deciding which GCSE and A Levels to take, their expectancies and their values will also be shaped by the difficulty of the subject, their previous experiences of the subject, their own goals and interests, their perceptions of other’s attitudes (and in particular their peers’, parents’ and teachers’ attitudes toward the subjects) and of course the cultural and societal norms they see reflected around them in their daily lives.
“Draw a (computer) scientist”
A study in the US looked at gender attitudes amongst children by asking them to draw a scientist. Generally speaking, younger children drew a more balanced mix of genders, but as they grew older, more and more children began to make their scientists male. When a similar study asked children aged 10-14 to draw a computer scientist, the stereotype was even more clearly defined. 71% of children drew a male scientist - picture a lab coat, crazy hair and test tubes - with a computer nearby. Most images showed the male scientist working alone, too.
The image is clear: a computer scientist is a man working with a computer, alone in a lab.
Stereotypes and Role Models
The people girls look up to and the way girls and women are depicted in society have an enormous impact on what girls will choose to study.
Google looked at the media representation of computer scientists. They found that across TV, films and other media, computer scientists were depicted as male, white and “geeky” or otherwise socially awkward. As discussed above, these representations have a clear impact on what roles girls see as available to themselves.
But television isn’t the only place where girls are getting the message that computers are for white boys. Even the rooms where computer science is taught can have a major impact on girls’ views of the subject. After all, most computer labs are set up with individual stations, emphasising the (assumed) lonely nature of computing, with posters and other decorative classroom objects reflecting outdated gender stereotypes that reassure girls that careers in computer science are not for them.
Moreover, where women are depicted as computer scientists, or even as people who use computers in their work, they are still shown to be white and socially awkward, two things that many, many girls simply won’t relate to.
The computer scientist stereotypes and role models commonly offered to students seem to ensure that girls see computer science as not for them, either because they are the wrong gender or because they don’t want to invest time in a subject that is so isolating and appealing to socially awkward individuals.
What should we do: addressing the social and cultural barriers
There are few things we know we as educators and parents can be doing better to improve the attitudes girls have to computer science as a subject and a potential career. We need to improve the role models they see and improve the classes they do take.
Improve the role models they see
Basically, the computer scientists girls see need to be more diverse. They need to have a range of looks, of course, but diversity in this context means even more than outward appearances. They need to see that women from a range of backgrounds do a vast number of jobs that all fall under the computer science umbrella. Code.org is a great resource for this, as they have profiles of women in computer science from all walks of life and most of the corners of the globe. Our own TECWomen profiles can show girls in Cornwall that women are doing amazing things with computers, right down the road from them!
Girls also need to see that the women working in computer science aren’t just sitting at a desk, alone, coding in a dark room. Almost every industry relies on computer science, and if girls see that they can use a computer science qualification in just about any career they choose, they will see the utility of the subject, and that will improve the value they place on it.
We can go even farther, however. If we speak to the girls we know and ask them what kind of role models they look up to - instead of assuming who would appeal to them - we can tailor the role models we show them to maximise the impact.
Improve the classes they do take
This is perhaps the more difficult of the two suggestions because we don’t know precisely the best way to structure a class to ensure every student learns as best they can. Should we have single-sex classes, where boys and girls learn separately? Some research suggests girls do better and participate in single-sex computing classes, but that research is looking at computing classes in single-sex schools, which tend to offer more computing classes, where the school’s brightest students tend to take computing classes and where those computing students will by definition be female. It is hard to say for certain that the findings would hold true in mixed-sex schools.
A Girls Day School Trust study conducted from 2012-2013 did find some compelling evidence that thinking about how girls learn best would improve their attitudes toward computer science. The study found that while teachers didn’t claim to design their courses specifically for female students, researchers did see an implicit understanding of how girls needed to learn.
They found that teachers gave girls time to explore the subject at their own pace, instead of rushing through a series of set instructions
They gave the students lots of reassurance and encouragement to take risks and fail. This is crucial because society so often discourages girls from risky behaviour and makes them fear failure, but successful computer scientists rely on failure and risk to push the boundaries of the technology
Similarly, the teachers also provided a lot of support in the face of difficulties, encouraging girls to persist instead of giving up.
The key recommendations of the report highlighted two things
First, computer science classes should focus on interactivity, leaving space for plenty of questioning and discussion. This means girls can discover many approaches to problems and explanations for solutions.
Second, computer science classes should incorporate more collaboration, using exploration and problem solving to improve students in a more rounded way. Crucially, this involves having children swap roles regularly, so they won’t simply rely on their established strengths. In this way, each student will improve their weaker skills, but they will also bring new perspectives to the new roles they inhabit.
The additional complexities
Of course, we know that anything involving gender is not as simple as “boys are like this and girls are like this”. For example, the ethnicity and economic status of girls has a huge impact on girls’ choices in the opposite direction. That is, girls of minority ethnic and economic statuses are more likely to choose computer science, compared to boys of similar statuses.
Additionally, we don’t know how teaching computer sciences classes with a focus on girls’ learning will impact boys. Many of the strategies outlined above seek to encourage girls to take on more educational traits associated more strongly with boys, but would boys improve if encouraged to take on more educational traits more strongly associated with girls? For instance, would boys improve if they were encouraged to slow down and plan more, and not be so risky and impulsive?
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that gender isn’t a simple binary. There are non-binary individuals and non-stereotypical girls, and they need to be in computer science, too. This is where asking students who they would like to see represented in computer science classes can be so helpful. If they are asked informed (but not leading) questions about what they would like to see in computer science classes, they can give surprisingly informative answers.
In conclusion: more research is needed
Since the reasons girls aren’t choosing computing GCSE and A-Levels are multifaceted and complex, untangling the influences will need to be multifaceted and complex, too. While these ideas set out by Hayley are a great starting point, she was keen to point out that much more research was needed to see exactly why girls aren’t choosing computing. Most research today is looking at STEM subjects broadly, and not computing specifically. She highlighted the work she is doing with the Gender Balance in Computing Study, looking at the attitudes children from the ages of all stages of education toward computer science with a view to discovering what can be done to encourage more girls to choose the subject at higher levels.
You can get involved by following the link above, or you can learn more here:
TECgirls are also working hard to try to solve this problem. We are working to make computing more accessible to girls across Cornwall, with fun interactive projects and hands-on events. While COVID has prevented some of our plans for now, we are looking to try to run more virtual sessions in the future. We are also undertaking our own research to understand what the issue looks like in Cornwall specifically and how working with schools, the council and other organisations we can inspire more girls to consider studying computer science.
If you would like to learn more about what we are doing or speak with us about doing an event please email firstname.lastname@example.org .