Engaging girls in computer science – the why, what and how

Three years ago CLC’s Rowan Roberts wrote a widely read blog post exploring the reasons why fewer girls than ever were taking the new computer science GCSE. In this follow-up long read she looks again at the problem – and why it matters – and takes on the challenge of examining all the practical ways girls can be better supported to engage with computing.

When I started thinking about how to follow up my popular 2018 blog post, What’s turning girls off computer science, and how we can make a positive difference, my thoughts turned to the Raspberry Pi Foundation, who I knew had been doing some research into this area. I will share some of the ideas from their work later in this post but, in fact, one of the first things I noticed when I visited this page wasn’t in the interesting blog itself, it was in the comments. 

As you can see, ‘Andrew’ questions not the truth of the gender discrepancy in computing, but disputes the idea that it actually matters. He makes the point that we see differences like these in many areas but don’t always feel the need to challenge them; so why should we challenge the gender gap in computer science? I think if I were speaking with Andrew directly my answer would probably be that computer science has too great an influence on our lives to be controlled entirely by a small, non-representative section of the population.  

The poor level of representation of women in STEM careers is already impacting our lives in all kinds of ways. In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez highlights many of them, including the fact that most mobile phones are slightly too big for someone with average female-sized hands to comfortably use one handed, or the fact that crash test dummies are almost exclusively designed based on male anatomy and that this makes safety measures in vehicles less effective for most women. 

So clearly it does matter. Maybe it’s just genuinely the case that boys are more likely to have a natural aptitude for the subject? This is an idea rooted in the popular notion of the left brain and the right brain, and their association with gender. Since around the 1960s many people, scientists included, conjectured that some humans favour the left-hand side of their brain, and this makes them better suited to logical thinking and spatial awareness. Right-brain thinkers, conversely, are supposedly more creative, visual and intuitive. Despite a lack of evidence to support this duality, it’s made its way into popular consciousness and, in particular, our expectations of boys and girls. It often informs the way that people describe themselves and their own aptitudes. 

More recently the left brain / right brain idea has been pretty soundly disproved through extensive, large-scale studies, which show that there is no real difference between how men and women use each side of their brains. But that hasn’t stopped it from influencing how many of us perceive the way that boys and girls think, and confirmation bias means that every time we see an example that seems to confirm this theory, our belief in it becomes stronger. 

Who’s a genius?

We see this in the different language we use to describe men and women and the fields they tend to work in. A 2015 study found that people working in male-dominated fields such as maths and physics are far more likely to be described as brilliant or geniuses. Subject areas such as history, biology and English, where there is a perception that hard work is more central to success, tend to favour women. This contributes to a misconception that certain subjects are off-limits to certain people – that without natural talent you’re unlikely to be able to keep up with your more brilliant peers.

And, of course, this duality filters its way into children’s understanding of their place in the world. Children as young as six echoed the idea, in another study, that brilliance or giftedness is more of a male trait, and that girls must work harder to become good at something. Girls were less likely than boys to participate in an activity when they were told it was for “really, really smart” children, but did show interest in a very similar game when told it was for children who try “very, very hard”. Interestingly this difference only seemed to affect children over the age of five; five-year-olds reacted similarly to both games, regardless of gender. 

And all of this is taking place in a world where the association between computers and men and boys has been strong since personal computers began to enter the home. Early advertisements for home computers in the 1980s tended to market them pretty squarely at men and boys.

This 1980s advert for Radio Shack features a young girl in the background, looking on as her males peers use computers for study and play. By placing boys at the forefront in the passive role of an observer, the advert isn’t just targeting boys, but quite specifically implying that girls are not the intended users of the product. But to go back to Andrew’s comment on the Raspberry Pi blog, maybe this is just more evidence that men and boys are simply more interested in using computers. Maybe these companies were simply responding to the preferences of their customers…

Well, not exactly. Before computers were available at home, women were actually more likely to use them than men were. This picture for example, taken in 1946, shows the team who programmed the US Army’s first computer, ENIAC… You may notice they all have something in common. 

This marked the beginning of a tradition of female programmers which began during the second world war and persisted for several decades. Back then, programming jobs were viewed in a similar way to secretarial jobs; people thought they required technical competence but not necessarily creativity and were therefore well suited to female workers. It wasn’t until tech careers gained higher social status and pay that they attracted men, and women began to find themselves pushed out of the industry, often even being asked to train their own replacements. There were other reasons too, many of which you can learn about in the book Programmed Inequality by Marie Hicks. She explains how post-war attitudes to women in work, among other factors, lead to the loss of a huge amount of female talent from the field in the latter half of the 20th century.

Part of the problem for women was that computers were expensive. Once they became consumer products rather than work-based equipment, companies began marketing them towards the member of the household they deemed most likely to have the funds and the financial independence to actually buy them, and even in the 1980s women were still a lot less likely to find themselves in this position.

This graph from Cracking the Gender Code (Accenture and Girls Who Code) shows a steady increase in women studying medicine, law and physical sciences at American universities since 1965. But the number of women in computer science, shown in red, took a hit in the mid 1980s and hasn’t recovered since. 

Stem Women estimates that, in the UK today, women occupy only around 24% of jobs in STEM, and the proportion of female IT professionals is even lower at around 16%, having decreased despite the rapid growth in this sector. Given all of this, it’s perhaps not surprising that most of us – around 80%, in fact – see computing as more of a masculine subject than an feminine one.

And I’m not talking about conscious beliefs here, but about unconscious or implicit bias. These images are taken from a test, created by Harvard psychologists, which helps show us what our biases are and how they affect the way we respond to information. The project includes a range of tests designed to help you understand your own implicit associations, and it’s worth trying a few of these if you want to be more aware of your own biases. In this example you are asked to sort a series of words into the categories “Male”, “Female”, “Science” and “Liberal Arts”. As you go through the test the combinations of categories change, and nearly 80% of people respond most quickly and accurately when “Male” words are sorted alongside “Science” and “Female” alongside “Liberal Arts”. This suggests that the majority of us unconsciously see women as less sciency than men, and men as less artsy than women. 

And the need for better representation in STEM becomes even more apparent when we see technology reflect our prejudice back to us, as it often does when we use AI software. You may have read about Amazon having to scrap its AI powered recruitment tool because, having been trained using data about existing employees, it came to the conclusion that male applicants were likely to be better suited to technology jobs, and ranked applicants accordingly. This can happen when an algorithm uses data that already contains biases: the AI spotted that there was a pattern of men in technology jobs, and rather than challenging it assumed this meant they were better candidates. 

You’ll see another example of this if you try comparing the results of these two searches. This is something I tried a few years ago, and when I did I found the result pretty stark.

The boys’ search was less surprising and really just containing boys and plenty of computers. Just your standard, run-of-the-mill laptops and desktops, with smiling cartoons and photos of boys absorbed in whatever is on the screen. There were even a few girls in some of the pictures.

The related search terms Google suggested all seemed pretty sensible too: school; education; technology; internet; library; hacker; parent; primary; classroom. They’re generally to do with learning about or working with technology at school.

But when I tried the same search for girls, this is what I got. As you can see it’s a really different picture… pretty much exclusively pink toy computers and accessories. A diamante encrusted mouse. And flowery laptop stickers. Products meant to be desired by girls and purchased by their parents. Few pictures of actual, fully functional computers – and not a single human girl actually using any of the devices.

 Even more worrying, perhaps, were the related search terms: model; hipster; cute; blonde; behind; upset; retro; bling; school; hair; science; business. Many of these seem pretty off topic, and the prevailing themes are visual appearance in the form of fashion or hair colour and, troublingly, the idea of struggling (“behind” and “upset”). This feels like a pretty unflattering representation of girls’ relationships with computers. 

Since then the picture has changed a little bit.

Here in the boys’ search you can actually see a pink computer alongside all of the other devices. (as well as my screenshot from the blogpost I wrote back in 2018!)

The result for girls is still dominated by the colour pink. However I am reassured to see more real computers and, more importantly, girls actually using them.

The suggested searches have got a bit better too, but there’s clearly still a strong connection between boys using computers to learn, and girls using computers because they look nice. 

 So the differences we see in Google image results between 2018 and now suggests that we are making some progress in perceptions of girls in tech, even if we still have a long way to go. And, of course, it’s not as if Google search results are the product of one bigoted individual who sees women as less capable than men in the world of technology. There is no one person to blame for this discrepancy; it’s the result of a complicated ranking algorithm which prioritises the ones that it judges most helpful, based on a range of factors. It gets its information from us: the way we make and use websites and, in this case, how we portray the relationship between girls and computers online – which is a product of how we see that relationship in society. Garbage in, garbage out. So it seems pretty clear that we have a way to go, and that we owe it to girls to play our part, as educators, in challenging the many and complex influences that contribute to many of them turning away from computer science. 

How we can support girls to engage with computer science

Of course we can’t control every influence that children are exposed to as they progress through their lives, but there are ways we can support girls to feel more confident, comfortable and… well, excited about studying computer science. I mentioned that one of the places I’ve looked for ideas is the Raspberry Pi Foundation. It’s involved with the NCCE trial programme on gender balance in computing, which seeks to explore the impact of a series of research interventions on female participation. One area of focus for this study also emerges from existing research and the experience of the Pi Foundation’s discussion panel’s promising themes.

And it’s all about making computer science relevant by putting computing in context. While students generally describe computing as a fairly abstract subject, research tends to find higher levels of engagement from girls when curriculum content is connected to people’s everyday lives. The panel also notes that this was particularly important in lessons with early year 7 pupils since this is a point when many pupils form opinions about different subjects which may shape their choices for the rest of their education. One example given is a lesson that uses collaborative play and pixel art to introduce steganography – the technique of hiding secret data within an image. 

Linking arts and STEM

And there are lots of other great ways of doing this. I once taught a Sonic Pi lesson in which a girl took it upon herself to programme the song “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran. Another, in a colleague’s class, recreated Baby Shark – much to the annoyance of her classmates! And, of course, they were playing around and having fun, which is important in itself, but this ability to replicate something so iconic and well known seemed to really captivate these pupils and showed them that there is real power in knowing how to code something; you can cause something to happen automatically that would be difficult to achieve by yourself, and that you recognise from the real world. As a side note, I also think music is a brilliant way into programming – partly because it’s all about sequences, repetition and procedures – but also because it’s such a great way of challenging the false dualism of creativity vs logic. It is an arts subject that is deeply mathematical. I think making links between the arts and STEM – or STEAM if you want to call it that – can be powerful both for engaging girls in STEM and for engaging boys in the arts, where we see the gender gap reversed.  

Scratch can also be great for empowering children to create digital products with a sense of real world value. Of course, one of the most popular uses of Scratch is to make computer games – which I do think is a great application of the tool but it can also be extremely difficult to teach well unless the children are already pretty confident. But you can also program Scratch to help you with your times tables using a variable, or use it to make a chatbot that can have a realistic conversation with you.

Real-world projects

I sometimes try to include my own programming projects that solve real-world problems in my day to day teaching just to model this idea that programming can make our lives easier or more fun.

There’s a project I use in a workshop that has nothing to do with Scratch – it’s a filmmaking workshop about space. It will randomly allocate children from 10 different groups to focus their research on a different part of the solar system. Similarly I also know of teachers who use a noisy classroom alarm programme as a fun classroom management tool. 

So the subject matter of our lessons is really important when it comes to engaging girls. But the way we teach that subject matter is also really important. I will make some generalisations here about gendered learning behaviours. To be clear, I believe these are differences in the learnt behaviours shown by boys and girls, and not necessarily indicative of fundamental differences in the ways that boys and girls learn. However, we shouldn’t blame girls for the ways they have learnt to learn by discouraging girls from using these learning behaviours, and in many instances these behaviours can give them strengths which can actually be really helpful in computing as long as they are properly accommodated in the way we teach it. 

Initialisation

In sequencing programming lessons one thing that can be really helpful, based on my own experience of teaching with Scratch, is initialisation. We often talk about fear of failure being a barrier for girls when it comes to programming because it can make them more reluctant to experiment and take the kinds of risks that can often be very helpful for learning in STEM subjects. I think this can sometimes be exacerbated when, in using tools like Scratch, children do something accidentally through experimenting which they then don’t know how to put back. I try to always either show children early on how to create an initialisation script in their project so they can reset everything as they experiment, or more often I’ll simply have them start with a template project which has a few blocks in their already that do this job. Obviously the children eventually need to learn how to do this themselves, but I think sometimes template projects can be really helpful for controlling cognitive load and making sure that children have the chance to focus their attention on the thing they’re actually learning, rather than simply trying to recreate the same set of commands as their neighbour, or trying to solve problems that they don’t yet have the knowledge to understand. This approach is partly informed by the ScratchMaths research project conducted by UCL Knowledge lab which I’ve found to be a really helpful touchstone for my teaching in Scratch.

It’s really just an example of the use of appropriate scaffolding, and there are plenty of other ways to do this – you might have them plan and create a project to meet a brief, then review and improve their design. You might set specific targeted tasks that hones in on their understanding of a specific concept. For example: fix this broken script. You might have them explore a new set of commands by asking them to change and test certain parameters. We know that girls tend to have lower confidence in computing, which means it’s not really fair to expect them to learn all that much from tinkering; in my own experience, asking less confident children to explore without setting clear parameters tends to lead to blank faces. They may need a bit more direction in terms of what to explore, or what they should be trying to find out by doing so. 

PRIMM

 I can’t talk about programming pedagogy without talking about PRIMM. It stands for predict, run, investigate, modify, make, and it’s a basic structure for teaching programming which I find an incredibly helpful starting point for planning. What’s nice about PRIMM is that it explicitly makes room for discussion of code that forces you to relate it to natural language – ie make a prediction. I think getting kids to explain and describe code is really helpful anyway because it supports their ability to think algorithmically and encourages them to programme in a way that’s comprehensible, but a bit like linking arts and STEM, it also draws upon skills that we typically associate more with girls; in this case communication. 

This highlights something that I think is really important in computer science and STEM generally, which is that we need to show children the value in learning behaviours that are often associated with girls. Teach them to be organised, to collaborate, to make their code adaptable and comprehensible, to name things effectively. These are all things that girls are stereotypically better at, and they’re also things that make for better programmers. So they can help combat the stereotype of the solitary male hacker genius being the archetypical computer scientist. And this all relates to another theme that emerged in the Raspberry pi panel discussion, which was about belonging. It’s about presenting computer science in a way that shows different ways of thinking are welcome. 

Welcoming spaces

In order for girls to feel a sense of belonging in the subject of computer science they also need to feel welcome in the physical space where it takes place. One challenge to this can be that if they are already outnumbered by boys they may feel somewhat out of place. Many schools combat this perception by running all-girls clubs, and this is an approach that has also been successfully employed in an informal setting by organisations like Girls who Code. At the CLC we turned our Robo Challenge competition into an all-girl event. It took place at IBM headquarters and, as well as giving girls a space to work on their programming skills, it exposed them to female role models in a professional setting. But when the learning is taking place at school, how can the classroom help to reflect the diversity we want to see in computing? Something as simple as the colours you see on the walls may make a difference; do they lean more towards stereotypically masculine colours? Are there pictures of people on the walls and, if so, what are their gender ratios? 

Role models

You could even include posters of female computing role models among your walls. 

These ones are made by CAS London and CS4FN are available to schools for free and can be requested on the Teach London Computing website. Role models like these are another really important factor in making girls feel that computing careers are attainable for them – but it isn’t just about the women in STEM that are around them. It’s also, as Eccles’ expectancy-value theory suggests, that when girls and women make choices about a subject (or career), they are influenced by the perceptions that others hold about that subject. So we have to try to change the attitudes of the wider school community – including boys. It’s also helpful for parents to be brought into discussions about the possibilities available to girls in computing careers – how this massive growth area is a really smart place to start a career. The Raspberry Pi panel found that many girls are put off computing because their families don’t see it as a good fit for them.  

I’m not suggesting that we can solve all of these problems ourselves, but these are just some of the things we can do to help girls emerge from school with a more robust sense of themselves as potential computer scientists. 

We can: 

Scaffold activities appropriately: which is really important when pupils have less confidence in their own abilities, and this is more likely to be the case for girls. This doesn’t mean spoon feeding them; it’s about building confidence gradually and keeping everyone on the same page. 

Model a growth mindset ourselves: catch yourself next time you say something like “I’m a terrible singer” or even “you’re very good and drawing”. Try to create an environment where children see that skill is plastic and can change, and ask your colleagues to help you. 

Embrace the positive learning behaviours we commonly see from girls. Sure, experimentation and risk taking is helpful in computing but so is communication and organisation. 

Visibly enjoy the subject (particularly if you’re part of an underrepresented group): I sometimes make Scratch projects to solve simple classroom problems like allocating different subjects to groups at random. Not because it’s easier than drawing names out of a hat but because it’s more fun, and I want the children to know that I think so. 

Expose children to a range of role models. This might be by talking about female computer scientists, by championing female colleagues, or by having diverse speakers telling young people about their careers.

  • Rowan Roberts is a teaching and learning consultant at the Connected Learning Centre, an award-winning organisation that helps schools and other settings use digital technologies to improve learning.

  • Contact the Connect Learning Centre to find out how we can help your school to make better use of digital technologies. We offer teacher CPD, curriculum support, tech support, consultancy and research.

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Upcoming CPD

Maths and digital technology forum for primary teachers
Maths and digital technology forum for primary teachers

The maths forum provides an opportunity for maths subject leaders to share their expertise and investigate new opportunities for digital technologies to support maths teaching and learning in class and online at home. The forum combines discussion with colleagues about school-wide progress in mathematics, with hands-on activities led by a CLC teacher, demonstrating how technology can be used to support maths. Activities will include programming in Scratch 3, which offers a practical way to illustrate and explore key mathematical concepts such as shape, space, position and direction.

03/11/21,
09:30
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KS1, KS2
Subject leaders, Teachers...
Digital security briefing for primary schools
Digital security briefing for primary schools

This briefing for senior leaders and other relevant school staff will explore issues and requirements that schools are facing in the light of new technologies and legislation, including cyber and network security, data and information security and requirements of KCSIE Annex C online safety measures. The session will help schools understand their responsibilities in demonstrating a reasonable duty of care and providing a safe and secure digital environment to all users, including consideration of remote learning and remote working issues.

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Upcoming Special projects

The News Project
25/11/21,
09:30
- 14:25
KS2

Special project in collaboration with First News Education

For a third year, building on two successful previous projects, we are once again partnering with the children’s newspaper First News, fellow member of the national Making Sense of Media and News Literacy networks. This special project with a literacy, PSHE and citizenship, as well as computing focus, highlights our specialist interest in this important aspect of digital and critical literacy.

The News Project will enable participating classes from year 5 to immerse themselves in news and current affairs using First News and the Bett award-winning First News iHUB, which will be provided free of charge during the school-based part of the project over a six week period. Under the guidance of their teacher, pupils will be supported in their development as a community of fully informed news readers. Classes will test their new critical skills and knowledge in the culminating virtual celebration event which will include a news competition and team-based critical literacy and editorial activities. After the event, schools will be able to use the resources from the day in their school.

The project will launch with an introductory CPD session for teachers to set the context, demonstrate resources and to plan for the school-based activities. 

Initial CPD session - Thursday 21st October 4pm-5.00pm. 

Project work undertaken in school - October and November.

Special event - Thursday 25th November 9.30am-2.45pm.

The Garden Museum
21/02/22,
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KS1

The CLC is once again partnering with the Garden Museum to offer a partnership project for KS1 pupils (primarily suited to Yr2). Located next to Lambeth Palace on the bank of the Thames, the museum has an inspiring collection that provides the ideal stimulus for young learners to explore the world around them.

Pupils will use technology alongside the museum’s collection to explore the wonderful world of seeds.

  • How are they planted?
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 The Garden Museum has a large collection of seeds and tools that pupils will engage with.

These half-day sessions will take place at the Garden Museum.

There is a limited number of dates available, so please book early to avoid disappointment.

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