“Girls Just Don’t Like Computer Science” Isn’t a Good Enough Excuse
In the UK, just 17% of those working in the tech industry are female.
As you might expect, when it comes to the number of girls studying computing in school, the statistics are equally as dismal.
Only 20% of students studying computer science GCSE courses are female. For computer science A level courses, this figure drops to a measly 7%.
As a result (as reported by the Department of Education), only 0.4% of girls choose to study A level computer science — compared to nearly 5% of boys. That means that for every girl in a computing class, there are over 12 boys.
And it’s not getting any better. Despite the rapid expansion of job opportunities over the past thirty years, new research from Accenture and Girls Who Code shows the tech gender gap has actually worsened.
One argument I’ve heard often is, ‘girls don’t want to study computer science’.
My question is, why?
Why a lack of women in the tech industry is a problem
Before we try to uncover the root of this problem, we first need to admit that it is a problem.
Knowing how technology works opens up more opportunities
In today’s world, knowing how to program and building things by yourself gives you a significant advantage.
Of course, it’s possible for someone with absolutely no technical background and zero coding experience to build a successful product — but it will be difficult.
Sure, you can always hire someone else to do it for you — but relying on someone else to build your ideas means you need to have the funding or be willing to give up equity in your company. And if you try to cut corners by hiring low-skilled developers, you could end up wasting a lot of money and ultimately ending up with a terrible product.
Knowing how to program and having the confidence to do so is the difference between spending months finding the right technical co-founder for your next project and being able to go home and build your idea tonight.
Tech is becoming an increasingly vital part of society
Even if you have no interest, in building your own product, it’s obvious tech is playing an increasing role in our society.
Artificial intelligence is already drastically changing the job market — and this is just the start. Who knows how much things will have changed in a few decades from now?
If we want to make sure that these changes are positive and improve quality of life for everyone — and not just a select group of people — we need to make sure the people behind the technology are as diverse as possible.
The skills gap
We’re currently experiencing a skills gap within the tech industry, with thousands of positions going unfilled each year.
And the problem is set to get worse.
At a time when only 17% of the tech workforce is female, it’s hardly unreasonable to consider their potential to fill their roles.
“The skills shortage is holding back business growth and limiting innovation because we are missing out on the richness of ideas which women could bring to the table,” said WISE’s Wollaston. “And women are missing out on exciting and well-paid careers.”
Why do girls opt out of computer science classes in schools?
“Girls just aren’t into computer science” isn’t a good enough argument.
It’s time to admit that there are still some significant barriers preventing girls from studying computing in school, and hence for women from getting involved in the tech industry — and ‘just not liking computers’ isn’t one of them.
In fact, there are a number of likely reasons why women are underrepresented in the tech industry:
Lack of visible role models
Many success stories fail to get exposure in the wider industry.
In this article, she mentioned how the women behind the first computer (also known as ENIAC) weren’t even mentioned at the ENIAC’s first demonstration in 1946; how Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who calculated the orbital trajectory of the first manned U.S spaceflight was barely mentioned in the coverage of the flight, and, most recently of all, how a news show working on a segment about girls and computer science actually failed to include a single reference to a girl-focused organization.
Instead, the network selected a man — the CEO of Code.org, a company involved in leading a partnership with the Trump administration) to lead the movement of getting more women into tech.
The curriculum needs an overhaul
Even when schools do teach computing, the curriculum is boring and uninspiring. There’s no real insight into how interesting the subject can actually be, and often no incentive to actually apply what you’ve learned.
Nobody learns to love computer science by memorizing the bubble sort algorithm or learning definition of the Transmission Control Protocol from a textbook and then regurgitating it in an exam.
We should be encouraging children to stretch their imagination, to build things and to solve interesting challenges.
Then, and only then, should we even attempt to explain the theory behind it.
In addition, the way computer science classes are taught is likely to be unappealing to lots of girls. Numerous studies have shown that women tend to prefer working in groups, while men prefer to work alone. In addition, group work helps to develop social skills and gets students to practice working in a team — a vital skill for the workplace.
As a result, a transition towards more project-based work that involves working in groups with other classmates is likely to produce a positive outcome for all students.
Lack of exposure at an early age
There have been numerous studies as to whether children’s toys influence their career choices.
Girls play with dolls and kitchen sets. Boys play with robots and cars. That’s just the way it is (…or is it?).
As a result, even if everyone starts programming at the same age in school, there is often this pre-ingrained idea that boys have been ‘building things’ and ‘speaking code’ for much longer than girls. This can give a sense that boys have a head start, and can feel intimidating for girls in computer science classes — even if they’ve had prior experience.
“There’s a competitive showiness in the classroom that intimidates some women who don’t have experience,” says Kathy Cooper, a Master’s candidate in computer science, during an interview with themuse. “Even in intro classes, the guys seem like they’ve been programming before.”
As a result of this perceived head-start, coupled with the stereotype that ‘computer science is for boys’, a lot of high-achieving, very competent women struggle at the beginning and get low marks in their initial exams. Many of them assume they’re ‘just not cut out’ for the subject and feel embarrassed with their lack of progress.
So, quite understandably, they quit.
If we want everyone to have an equal shot at success in this industry, we need to make sure they’re on equal footing from the get-go.
Shortage of teachers
In the UK, 54% of schools do not offer computer science GCSE.
On his blog, AVC, Fred Wilson, the Silicon Alley venture capitalist, openly called for more computer science to be taught schools.
“We continue to teach our kids French but we don’t teach them Ruby on Rails. Which do you think will help them more in the coming years?”
But we can’t offer more computer science classes if there aren’t even enough teachers. England meets only 68% of its recruitment target for entries into computing teacher training courses.
Currently, the government allocates just £1.2 million a year to training existing computing teachers.
The Royal Society calls for the government to invest £60 million over the next five years with the aim of training 8,000 secondary school computing teachers. This would help put computing education funding on par with physics and maths.
However, there is currently a significant shortage of trainees with enough specialist knowledge to teach a technical subject.
If we have any hope of inspiring our students to take computer science in school, we need to do everything we can to find good, engaging teachers.
Introducing more girls to the subject is a vital starting point, but we need more than that. We need people who actively encourage girls to participate. We need more women to act as role models, to provide inspiration, and to show children how exciting, interesting, and rewarding the field can really be.
And, most of all, we people who can inspire confidence in young girls and show them that they are just as confident as their male counterparts.
Preconceptions about tech
Right now, in the majority of schools, computing isn’t viewed as a ‘cool’ subject.
If we want more people — both children and their parents — to take an interest, we first need to address many of the cultural and social stereotypes that turn people off the subject.
Role models outside of the classroom matter, too. It’s far easier for a 12 year old girl to relate to Ida Tin, the Danish founder of Clue — a period and ovulation tracker —than it is for her to relate to Mark Zuckerberg.
If we want to get more girls involved in tech, we need to encourage them from an early age
If we have any hope of getting more women involved — and, more importantly enthusiastic — in tech, we need to seriously revamp our current education system.
Computer science is already at the forefront of our economy — and it will remain there for the foreseeable future.
If we want to put our children on equal footing, we need to start preparing now.
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