Not just boys’ toys: Why we really need to get girls into computing

Science, technology, engineering and maths – the so-called STEM subjects – are male-dominated. Despite an active crusade to inspire girls to enter the STEM-isphere the gender-imbalance remains. Shahneila Saeed, head of education at UK Interactive Entertainment Association Ltd. (Ukie), and director of the Digital Schoolhouse programme, explains why we need to put all our efforts into fighting stereotypes around computing so that girls don’t miss out on rewarding careers in this exciting, growing sector

In spite of huge drives to encourage girls to take up STEM subjects women still make up a very small percentage of the computing sector, occupying fewer than a quarter of these jobs across the world. In an age where modern technology is developing so rapidly why are outdated, gendered perceptions of computing still so hard to shift?

Of course, there is no single answer to this question – education, culture, role models, advertising and the way children engage with technology all play a part – but, whatever the reason for the stark lack of women in the computing industry, one thing is clear: the sector needs them.

Blue can be for girls too

There’s a lot of speculation around the notable lack of women who pick careers in computing and the correlating issue that fewer girls opt to study maths and science beyond GCSE level (the moment they have a say in the matter!) One of the reasons for the gender bias in this field is the way in which tech is sold to children at home, at school and in the media.

That’s not to say girls today aren’t interested in tech; young women are as attached to their smartphones as boys and are more prolific users of social media. But, it seems to me, tech for girls is sold as either recreational (great for keeping in touch with friends and sharing photos) or practical (also great for online shopping).

It isn’t, however, effectively marketed as a career for girls to aspire to. The world of computing has become synonymous with a boyish culture which is either unwelcoming or unappealing to women (or both).

The ‘IT’ crowd

One thing which is lacking when we think of people who ‘work in IT’ – and which may go some way to explaining the lack of female interest in the sector – is creativity. We automatically think of people sat behind computer screens, entering formulae and writing code all day.

But computing is incredibly creative!

Creating something, whether it be a website, app or game from scratch requires not only technical ability but also creativity, a flare for design and presentation and an understanding of how people work. This is why I advocate a more creative ‘off-screen’ approach to computing education.

However, while the creative side is important, we also need to take into account the fact that there are a lot of women who relish the technical side of things; one of our biggest problems as a society is that we don’t recognise that. Women can be, and are, just as technical as men. The assumption that all things technical is a male domain is a common misconception that our Digital Schoolhouse programme attempts to tackle head on.

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A time to engage

We use play-based techniques to get children involved in coding and computing. Activities such as dance, playdough sculpting and magic tricks reflect some of the fundamentals of computing – for example, patterns, sequencing, communication and models. By showing how important creativity, communication, attention to detail and other such ‘soft’ skills are to the computing industry we hope to be able to prevent young girls from being put off by the stereotypical image of the male-dominated world of tech.

With many girls tending to veer towards creative subjects and the humanities, rather than STEM subjects, it seems that revealing the creative side of STEM and computing might be the best way to engage them! I believe that, in order to engage girls, we need to pick a diverse range of topics which are open ended and which students can personalise according to their own interests. Students engage more readily with real world problems that they can solve, ones that they can relate to, which allow them to see the relevance of the subject in their everyday lives.

Someone to look up to

Another potential reason for the lack of women in computing is the fact that there are fewer female icons in this field. We’re used to reading about the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates but how often do Ada Lovelace – credited as being the founder of scientific computing – or Grace Hopper – one of the first pioneers of programming – come up in conversations about tech and computing?

By shining a spotlight on women in computing, and demonstrating how boys and girls can strive for rewarding careers in the tech industry, we hope to help shift the persistent gender stereotypes that have plagued the computing field for so long. Through the Digital Schoolhouse programme we get primary and secondary school 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 dismiss computing as a career option for them.

About Digital Schoolhouse

The not-for-profit Digital Schoolhouse programme, powered by PlayStation®, uses play-based learning to engage the next generation of pupils and teachers with the new computing curriculum. Digital Schoolhouse is delivered by the UK games industry trade body, Ukie, and was originally seed-funded by the Mayor of London’s London Schools Excellence Fund (LSEF).

Each Digital Schoolhouse is based in a school, college or university environment and aims to work with a growing network of local primary and secondary teachers to deliver creative and cross-curricular computing lessons using play-based learning. Through this it supports the new computing programme of study in the national curriculum in a way that leaves pupils and teachers feeling inspired about, and engaged with, computing and the wider creative digital industries.

The workshops put theory into practice and help teachers embed this through ongoing personalised support and CPD. The programme has been accurately described as a, ‘bridge between education and industry’ – and a good one at that.