Why is it so hard to get girls to study computing?

At my school, an independent all-girls school, there are 3 Computing electives: one in years 9-10 – Information and Software Technology (IST)  and two in years 11-12 Software Design and Development (SDD) and Information Processes and Technology (IPT). I started in this school this year and I was told that while SDD had been offered for years, there were never enough girls to viably run it year-on-year.  We only have IST and IPT at the moment …and for how long?

One doesn’t have to look hard to know that there are initiatives to get more girls into computing, in general, and into software engineering, in particular. For example, Sydney Uni runs Girls Programming Network, UNSW has Robogals, TAFE has Digi-Girls (program seems to have stopped) and Google has BOLD diversity program. Strangely though, my precursory look indicate that Computer Science or Software Engineering degrees don’t seem to include computing subjects as pre-requisites….how will students know if it’s for them if they haven’t been exposed to it previously (just wondering)?

Why is it so hard to get girls to study computing?

Fact is, there’s no easy answer….which means, there’s no easy solution. But first, some ideas on the problem.

Not counting conversations I’ve had on Twitter particularly with @asher_wolf, the following articles I read recently are indicative of the complexity of this issue.

  1. To my daughter’s HS programming teacher – by Rikki Endsley (a woman in IT) about her daughter’s awful experience of sexism whilst still in high school (tbh, there were more issues in that school)
  2. Titstare app at Techcrunch – report/outrage over a showcased app that lets you ‘stare at tits’
  3. The Brogrammer Effect – looking at why there are even fewer women in IT now than in the 1990s; also contains some positive ideas
  4. What it’s like to be a woman in Y Combinator – an interview with Nikki Durkin, creator of 99Dresses; i.e. a success story of a woman in IT and I’ll get back to this article because she has some positive ideas
  5. Terri Oda, Mathematician, debunks ‘women are bad in math’ [sic] myth – includes a brilliant, entertaining and informative slideshow debunking assumptions that the lack of women in STEM fields is due to being worse at science and math

Before I was a teacher, I was also a woman in IT. Luckily, I was never subjected to any of the sexism that Endsley’s daughter had or even Durkin who was “denied” programming electives, being offered Textiles instead (ironically, I teach both at my school).  Durkin is quite upbeat about being in the minority saying it is an advantage because she stands out more and THAT is important for entrepreneurs. And like me, she also hasn’t suffered sexism – the cynics will probably add ‘yet’ to that. My wish for her is that she never does especially in a way that would hurt her positive spirit. This is to say that even though I didn’t suffer from it, I acknowledge that it exists. This is important because when I talk to my students about careers in IT, I can tell them of these 2 sides to the story….as well as some strategies to address it.

Durkin mentioned that part of the problem is that girls aren’t exposed to it. This was also mentioned in The Brogrammer Effect. These 2 articles confirmed my theory which inspired me to change the existing course scope to include software programming  (see related post); that was a risk because girls chose this elective thinking it will be on Digital Media and web design…no mention of coding. Anyway, as it turned out, most of the girls loved it….actually more than I thought.

Endsley’s daughter was lucky to have her mum talk about careers in IT. Most girls don’t have people talking to them about it/IT. As one lady said in The Brogrammer Effect, women just don’t know about the perks of working in IT like flexible hours and “work on amazing projects with amazing people” – certainly an experience I could relate to as well.

…..I’m beginning to sound nostalgic about a past career….let’s move on….

I needed to write this now to reflect on my practice and will use the Stop, Start, Change, Continue framework for some future actions….and this is where your ideas could come in really handy….please make suggestions.

Stop

  • feeling so depressed about the situation; that doesn’t lead to anything but ….well, feeling depressed

Start

  • talking to girls outside of my computing classes about the benefits of studying computing…and that doesn’t mean going into an IT career. Computational thinking is beneficial in and of itself
  • building a community of students who can pursue such interests

Continue

  • searching for ideas to understand and solve the issue
  • connecting with women in IT like @asher_wolf and @kcarruthers  who could be mentors as well as moral support (think: this is worth fighting for so don’t give up)
  • connecting with fellow computing teachers and participating in #ozcschat
  • trying to inspire current computing students
  • seeking help

Change

  • computing course scope to include more Computer Science stuff; after all, students already do plenty of movie-making and web-designing in other subjects

 

Can you help me here please?

OR should I just give up…and go back to IT (that’s adding 1 to women in IT, right?)…or maybe teaching Maths?

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12 thoughts on “Why is it so hard to get girls to study computing?

  1. malyn says:

    fancy that. just spotted this article on my Twitter timeline.
    Why schoolgirls are not interested in studying IT

    It’s written by a 13 yo whose main thoughts on the problem centre on stereotypes and interestingly, that IT is not compulsory such that “knowing I can drop it doesn’t make me try my best.” She also talks about lack of female role models….and I hasten to add, the number is diminishing further.

    I did wonder whether to add the above as a blog update or a comment but since it kinda answers some of my questions, I figured it belongs here as a comment…even if it looks weird to comment on one’s post!

  2. Mr Drake says:

    Unfortunately (?) you have to make sure you teach things that are attractive to girls… boys will seem to do it no matter what. I’ve also had to start targeting girls in years 7 and 8 to sell it early. Its really hard, but the more girls, the more will come.

    • malyn says:

      thanks. How do you do the ‘selling’? Yep, I’m really after concrete details. I bet i’m not the only one who wants to know the answers (not to say that i’ve got a big readership but there are a few who are genuinely interested).

      • Mr Drake says:

        Partially working out what the girls want to do as they make their choices for year 9 in term 3, and educating them as to what is really involved. Partially cult of personality, which is unfortunate, but some students choose electives according to who the teacher is.

        • malyn says:

          so true for both. I’ve only had 3 terms at this school (shorter if you consider the fact that subject selections are done way before 3 terms are over) …perhaps not long enough to establish a ‘cult following’ (haha).

          I did try to work a bit on targeting some students for year 9.

      • @sailpip Phillip says:

        Malyn
        Sorry about not replying earlier, I am very interested in this topic (but it does worry me that there seems to be a decline in the number of CS teachers and we are not very vocal). I have the problem that in senior college I get very little influence in getting girls to do computing courses 🙁 so my numbers are very low. I think the best way it to find the key that interests your students and get in young (ie primary school).

        Please keep being loud and proud about girls in IT.
        Phillip
        PS get post

        • malyn says:

          Thank you for your comment – never too late to add to such an important conversation!
          I think we all feel disempowered to do anything. This further strengthens my view that the solution is multi-pronged, i.e. addressed at several levels: BOS/curriculum, school administration/executive, classroom teachers (high school and primary), university, industry society (via parents), and students.

          Truth is, I think something is being done at each level but perhaps not concerted enough to bring about the change needed. Perhaps the multiplicity of ‘solutions’ even serve to compete against each other (eeek).

          I will keep being loud and proud about girls in IT. You, too!

          cheers,
          Malyn

  3. Kim Wilkens says:

    Malyn,
    Thanks for sharing – similar thoughts have been rattling around in the back of my brain as the tech culture has been getting me down lately along with having to continually “sell” the idea that computational thinking and learning some basic coding is kind of fundamental to be truly literate in our tech-saturated world. Because CS is not required, it faces this uphill struggle to overcome the deeply rooted stereotypes associated with it.

    Dr. Joanne Cohoon tweeted out words of wisdom that I have found extremely useful in working with girls: “to recruit women students into computing: spark interest, build confidence, nurture inclusive community and help them develop a tech identity.” Of course, all that takes time because it’s fundamentally about relationship building. I hope you’ll be able to join Catherine Cronin and myself on Sat at STEMxCon – Where are the girls? http://techkim.wikispaces.com/girlsintech
    Kim

    • malyn says:

      Dear Kim,

      Thank you so much for your comment and support…means a lot to me.

      I love your title of tech-activist! And yes, it is about relationship building which takes time.

      Thanks for the info on the conference and will definitely try to attend. Looking at the schedule, it looks like I can. yay!

  4. Nicky says:

    It’s certainly a hard problem to solve.

    If I can add a few extra things to your reading list: Unlocking the Clubhouse (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/176395.Unlocking_the_Clubhouse) –
    Impostor Syndrome (wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome) I think is a major factor in a lot of girls and women not choosing to pursue further ‘scientific’ or CS study. Understanding it and trying to ensure your students and peers aren’t given any opportunities to write off their own achievements is really important in ensuring women don’t step back and drop out.

    I agree 100% with your stop/start/continue/change analysis. I’ll also add that there’s a relatively common phenomenon where women who move out of a “technical field” (scare quotes intended) feel perhaps that they’ve ‘let the team down’. One more or fewer woman in tech isn’t the issue. I’m proposing that what’s really important is that more women be encouraged and supported into an awesome field with great opportunities. They can make their own decisions about whether they want to become a hacker or a tech-literate doctor, scientist, author, chef, or anything in-between. The key is trying to ensure that they know (and really understand) the possibilities, and I would argue that none is as well-placed to ensure that than a teacher. So keep fighting the good fight!

  5. Melanie says:

    Very interesting observations. I think traditionally, IT has been targeted at fairly mechanical things that don’t appear to have a real world application beyond computing. Some students would reason that creating an excel spreadsheet or a data base is all well and good but how does that apply to my real life, my real interests & my career goals? The girls I have taught have expressed this. Part of the key is to unlock their vision of how IT applies to their lives & their interests.

    I don’t think we can ignore a gender bias that is real. My daughters frequently shock male friends with their gaming and programming abilities. They don’t understand why it is such a surprise… and nor do I really. One of my daughters has even built a computer from scratch

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