Getting girls to consider computing qualifications

Written by: Shahneila Saeed | Published:

Getting more girls into computing – the important question asks ‘how’ not ‘why’. Shahneila Saeed explores how schools can work towards reducing the gender bias in computing

Although current statistics show that 12,500 girls in the UK took computing at GCSE level in 2016 – a huge and positive leap on the 5,700 in 2015 – they still only make up 20 per cent of the total students studying the subject.

The IT sector skills council e-skills UK – now known as The Tech Partnership – says the industry needs about 140,000 entrants each year. Last year, the UK had 16,440 computer science graduates, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, leaving a shortfall of around 120,000 per annum.

With headline statistics like these so blatant, it comes as no surprise to hear that we need to encourage more girls into IT and computing – it’s a no-brainer.

However, the difficulty arises when we try to address how to do just that. Thankfully, schools are well aware of the gender bias that exists when it comes to computing, and as such, are increasingly doing all they can to break the stereotype of it being a male-dominated subject. Working with numerous schools across the country, I have learned first-hand what works well.

Everyone welcome

A number of schools I’ve worked with have gone down the “girls-only” route, and set up a computing club specifically for girls, with the hopes of eliminating the sense of fear that some females might experience when it comes to discussing the subject in front of their male peers, who they may perceive as having more knowledge and insight on the subject.

However, in my experience this rarely has the desired outcomes. Girls often feel patronised, and ask why they need a girls-only club, while boys are left feeling excluded because they’re not given access to the club.

Mark Ward, head of computer science, business and vocational studies faculty at St John Fisher Catholic Voluntary Academy in Dewsbury, however, believes the “girls-only” route can be beneficial.

He explained: “Recently, we’ve been involved with a ‘girls only’ cyber-security competition. We had about 10 girls from years 8, 9 and 10 participate and although we weren’t successful in the actual competition, it has laid some good foundations moving forward.”

However, ensuring that everyone feels welcome and comfortable when it comes to computing is also one of his priorities: “We’re also setting up our own eSports club which hopefully will be up and running by the end of the summer term and I’m going to be ensuring that at least some of the competitions will be ‘gender neutral’ games.”

Visible role-models

Having visible female role-models also helps to show girls that women are perfectly capable of achieving great things in the IT sector. Girls may have originally shied away from the subject because of the stereotype, however, with the right encouragement and inspiration, their talent can emerge.
I know of a number of schools that have recruited female members of staff in IT and computing, which they have said has helped to lift some of the stigma around the subject.
Others ensure that lots of inspirational women, such as Ada Lovelace, credited as being the founder of scientific computing, feature heavily alongside the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates on displays in every classroom highlighting famous names in computing.
Through our own programme, we also get primary and secondary/sixth form students working together, so young girls are able to look up to their female secondary school seniors and see how far they’ve come in computing – thereby encouraging them to do the same, and not to think that computing is only for boys.
Piggyback off interests
In October 2015, international exams group Cambridge Assessment released a research report on gender differences in GCSE. The report revealed that girls had accounted for 93 per cent (a total of 10,153) of the total GCSE entries for dance in 2014. While this stat may unveil its own gender bias issues, it does suggest that dance is an interest for many girls. Therefore, could computing be combined with dance, or another subject or activity of interest to pique girls’ interest?
Langley Grammar School in Slough certainly thought so, and its IT department helped us develop a “computing through dance” project called Get with the Algo-rhythm, to appeal to girls and incorporate computing in an innovative way into the curriculum. The project starts by creating flow charts of instructions to perform the moves of a well-known dance, such as the New Zealand and Tonga rugby teams’ Haka or Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. The initial objective is to develop the understanding of a sequence and appreciate the importance of accurate instructions. Students are tasked with creating their own dance, which must include four moves, at least one repeat and a pose for when the whistle blows. The dance is then written in a flow chart, and a score is given on the clarity of instruction, accuracy of sequence, use of repeats, use of a question and overall quality of dance moves.
The project then evolves into using Scratch, the free programming language and online community where you can create your own interactive stories, games and animations. Students choose a dance character or import images of themselves to perform a sequence of dance moves and by building on the students’ previous understanding in the kinesthetic activity they are able to include repeats and a selection question. This project can be extended to add a variable to determine the number of times the dance sequence is repeated and later to introduce the concept of procedures for the more complex dance moves.
Consider your content
In the classroom, the focus of a lesson could be on, for example, solving a “real-world problem” – a scenario that all students can relate to and engage with regardless of gender or other diversity categories.
Pedagogy should enable students to explore and use their own creativity, i.e. determining their own outcome. For example, in our 3Doodler workshop the pedagogy dictates that students are taught how to use the pen, drawing in 2D, drawing in 3D to then finally making their objects. We don’t dictate what that final object should be, we allow the students to choose. So, some will make jewellery, others will make characters and models and older students may make cases for their mobile phone. The important thing is to let them choose and dictate. Let them use the tech and apply it to themselves.
If picking a scenario try not to restrict it to one that is heavily gender-biased. Don’t, for instance, do an entire project on football or alternatively on fashion. Either provide students with options to choose, or provide a framework allowing students to plug in their own specifics.
Conclusion
Statistics surrounding the gender bias in computing are improving, and thankfully the gap is narrowing, but there is more to be done. Technology is consistently changing and we need a varied base of talented people, both male and female, with different skills. By inspiring both boys and more girls to study computing we can ensure this talent base exists and that the tech industry can continue to innovate into the future.



Shahneila Saeed is a former teacher and head of computing who now works as head of education at Digital Schoolhouse, an initiative delivered by the UK games industry trade body Ukie and aiming to work with a growing network of local primary and secondary teachers to deliver creative and cross-curricular computing lessons. Visit www.digitalschoolhouse.org.uk


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