Why won’t girls study Computer Science?

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Following our recent Share Cambridge event, incorporating our Women in IT meeting, we asked for our members’ feedback. Gathered by means of an anonymous survey, we were delighted that the responses included the following topical opinion piece. Socitm is all about conversation and we’d love to hear your views as to how we as a community can inspire more girls to build careers in technology and become digital leaders.

“In an increasingly digitalised world, we need more people to study computing than ever before. We also need an increasingly diverse and inclusive workforce in order to bridge a looming digital skills gap. As we stand on the threshold of the fourth industrial revolution, it’s imperative we attract and retain interest and engagement in computing early and we need to start in schools.

Alarmingly, however, research by the University of Roehampton and the Royal Society recently found that only 20% of candidates for GCSE Computer Science, and 10% for A level Computer Science, are girls.

While it’s encouraging to hear that the Department for Education has granted £2.4 million of funding to ‘Gender Balance in Computing’, a research project established to trial new initiatives designed to boost girls’ participation in computing, we need to ask some big questions. If we are going to remedy the situation, we need to understand the entrenched and complex reasons behind girls’ reluctance to study STEM subjects.

In 2018, despite the overall number of A level entries across all subjects falling, there was a 4% increase in girls taking STEM subjects on the previous year.  While – in real terms – this equates to 5,000 more girls taking STEM A levels than in 2017, actual numbers are considerably lower than for boys.  Consequently, 2018 research by PWC revealed only 15% of employees working in STEM roles in the UK are female. Distressingly, only 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women.

One of the most often aired explanations for this staggering gender imbalance is that girls simply aren’t interested in STEM subjects, particularly post 16. However, anyone who has ever spent time around young children and tablet devices, knows this is absurdly untrue. While a degree of disinterest is inevitable in either sex, research shows that where girls are given practical technological tasks to complete and enjoy as frequently as their male counterparts, their interest is piqued and retained at a corresponding level. Disengagement typically occurs when peers, parents and teaching staff, wittingly or otherwise, begin to suggest or promote segregation in the way girls and boys evaluate and solve technical problems. Where there is equality between the sexes in terms of practical digital experiences, girls show more than enough aptitude, understanding and enthusiasm.

The truth is that in Western society, girls are constantly subject to an influx of subliminal messaging pushing them towards so-called ‘soft subjects’. While boys are encouraged to get their hands dirty and be assertive, girls are told, emphatically, that their role is to mediate, negotiate and people please. Arguably, what the today’s emergence of technology does (as well as being an operational game changer) is to elevate those self-same ‘soft skills’ from a position of perceived inferiority to the vanguard of a sector revolution. In placing collaboration and communication at the fore, digital transformation is dependent on professionals who have a broad understanding of its value as a philosophy rather than viewing it merely as ‘tech’. With this in mind, after years of being dissuaded from technology roles, girls are now ideally placed to lead the industry as it transitions and blossoms?

Unfortunately, with so few women visible in the sector, the challenge of bridging the technology gender divide all too often falls almost exclusively to teachers and the lack of practical opportunities available in a classroom setting all too often fail to inspire. Furthermore, non-specialist educationalists – outside of further and higher education – are unlikely to have the digital skills to teach computer science at the required level.

Without Digital Leaders stepping in to make-up the classroom shortfall, it seems unlikely that the UK’s digital skills shortage will be fully addressed and that’s a huge blow to everyone. Perhaps what is required is a targeted and meaningful campaign whereby we – as public sector professionals – step in and offer girls (and boys) the chance to understand the potential and importance of careers in technology. If not, the future of the industry is set to suffer worldwide as the skills shortage spreads and grows.”

Share your views on Twitter @socitm or by email: hello@socitm.net

Why won’t girls study Computer Science?

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