The gender debate with computer science has gone on for a long time; too long, many would argue. Numerous reports, statistical studies, journal articles and books have been written about this very topic but the disparity remains. There are "pet theories" citing "research evidence", and there is "anecdotal evidence"; there is, however, little agreement on how best to address this issue and how to work collectively, as an education system, to rectify it.
We know there is a disparity between males and females taking GCSE Computer Science, and that, for many years, this disparity has been matched at A Level and in undergraduate degree courses. Our subject is not alone, of course: other subjects (e.g. Physics, Performing Arts) witness a similar imbalance. However, it's perhaps not disingenuous to say that that's their problem, and this is ours! Personally, I believe in a computing-for-all position; that's all pupils, male or female, no exceptions. All will enter the workplace and, when they do, they will all need to understand how their digital world functions - how it runs their workplace and work-related activities..
So, yes, there are not enough girls taking our subject. (I'm happy to admit, too, that there are not enough boys either, but that's for another day.)
Why pupils might, or might not, opt for a particular subject is complicated. It is hard to tease out the true reasons from the noise which can come from a multiplicity of source,s e.g. their peers, their families, the options being presented by their school, hidden pressures from all of the above, etc. However, earlier this year, CAS member Terry Critchley (veteran IT professional and respected author) worked with CAS to run a short survey of the target audience - the girls themselves - to find out their views on why they are not opting for computer science at either GCSE or A Level. There was a free-form input section to avoid "corralling" girls by multiple-choice questions.
It was a small study with a limited sample (402 responses) and was not intended to be a full-blown research project following established research methodology. The girls responding were mostly aged 14 (68%) and had just made their option choices. Approximately one third were studying GCSE Computer Science or Computing A Level, and one purpose was to compare the views of these with those not taking the subject. What they said was interesting and I hope that such an approach can be extended with the proposed pilot studies into gender, announced by the Department for Education, as part of its new investment in our subject in Autumn 2018.
- a lack of information or knowledge about the subject, Computer Science courses or computing in general
- external influences,e.g. choices made by friends, or its not being required for a chosen university
- unavailability in a particular option block
- a perception that the subject is hard
- a perception that it mandates good maths skills
- a preference for other subjects
- using computer science as a "filler"
- a lack of confidence in one's own ability
Let's not forget that there's a general lack of take-up amongst males too, but extrapolating precisely the reasons why females in particular are not opting to study Computing or Computer Science is hard. This study does however provide some pointers worthy of note for further research, and we encourage all readers to take time to consider the results and draw their own conclusions.
Before leaving this topic, It's is important to consider some of the factors that affect how our young people make such choices. These are borne out by this research and provide very important indicators to how we can begin to address the problem in our schools. I'm indebted here to my colleague, Niel McLean, for this pithy summary:
- "I've had a good experience to date" - or, perhaps more importantly, "I've not had a bad experience". In subjects like sociology, economics, business studies and psychology, schools get better take-up at KS4 if they haven't offered them at KS3, rather than if they have offered them but taught them badly. There is asymmetry here; i.e. negative effects are more powerful influences than positive ones.
- "I think I'll do well at this" - teacher voice is important, but even more important is "I've seen someone like me do well at this". For example, seeing an older student from one's ethnic, gender or social group, whom one knows is doing well, is far more powerful than, say, a role model from business. Again, there is asymmetry here; if a student isn't aware of any such examples, they'll assume the subject is not for people like themselves.
- "I think this will get me somewhere" - usually the proverbial 'icing on the cake'. Pointing to future opportunities helps but will not compensate for the two earlier points if they are negative (again, asymmetrical effects)
As teachers, we need to show our pupils where computing can take them in order to answer the "so what?" response that inevitably comes as they consider their options. Doing our best to connect our subject to real-world application and interest will surely go some way to help students in this process,