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What are the drivers to inspire more girls to study computer science?

Martine Mannion, Nottingham Trent University

As our 21st century society evolves, computer science (CS) proves fundamental (Cotteleer & Sniderman, 2018) to our global communities’ economic growth, national security, sustainability and sector-wide innovation. However, with only 20 per cent of female GCSE and National 5 students taking CS in 2017 (Royal Society, 2017), the need to attract and skill-up more girls in the subject approaches crisis-point here in the UK.

Globally, with female representation within the profession at one in four, concerns around the equity of CS skills division mount, as this critical industry of wide-reaching influence across all cultures, races and creeds continues to remain male-dominated.

‘There is a gender divide, with women and girls enjoying less access to information technology than men and boys. This can be true of rich and poor countries alike.’
(UN, 2005)

Recommendations from world leaders, scholars and industry experts call for urgent action to identify how to inspire more females to participate in CS studies, in order to address what is clearly a growing global problem. In the UK the Royal Society’s (2017) recent report highlights the need for teacher-led research into providing equal opportunities for girls to participate in CS activities.

Many studies have already revealed the barriers causing this issue. The teacher-led research that I conducted as part of my MSc dissertation investigated and revealed how converting barriers causing that lack of participation – including gender stereotypes, accessibility and uninspiring curriculum content – into drivers can inspire more girls to take up CS at GCSE, which can potentially lead into CS careers.

One such focus was on an apparent lack of concern for the gender imbalance in IT participation. Such unconscious teacher bias, according to findings from Google (Dee & Gershenson, 2017), reinforced these stereotypes in schools by way of subtle aspects of classroom environments – such as the gender ratio of students in a class, or posters associated with masculine CS stereotypes – which can trigger anxiety that affects the performance and academic engagement of females (a phenomenon known as ‘stereotype threat’). However, a long-term Australian PhD study (Fisher, Lang, Craig, Forgasz, & McLeod, 2016), successfully identified an approach to changing girls’ perceptions around CS, which even resulted with female students pursuing CS careers after participating in the Digital Divas project.

Based on my literature review, I applied a hypothesis around ‘feminine constructivism’ (Papert & Harel, 1991) to my research plan, designing collaborative active learning activities that incorporated a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and maths) digital making project approach. As both teacher and researcher I established two ethnographic case studies to observe female students in years 3 and 6 in their CS lessons working through these activities, in which the focus was solving a real-world problem using physical computing and makerspace resources.

‘Linking creating to having fun, ensuring that activities have real-world relevance that appeals to “female empathy”, and collaborative working with physical computing proved effective drivers that could inspire more girls to take up computing studies.’

The eight-week observations and surveys revealed behaviours and approaches which enabled the girls to engage and connect to practical uses of CS in the world around them. In classifying these as ‘drivers’ which could inspire more girls to study CS, my analysis indicated a theme in which ‘creating’ linked to ‘having fun’ proved strong drivers to build into lessons. A key observation was that the desire for activities to have a ‘real-world relevance’ appealing to ‘female empathy’, proved a further driver. Similarly, ‘collaborative working’ with ‘physical computing’ was effective at engaging and developing students’ ideas using ‘tangible’ and ‘dynamic CS resources’, such as the ‘micro-bit’, which is affordable, easy and quick to set-up and responsive to many situations and abilities.

Other stakeholders surveyed (enablers) – including parents, CS teachers, research academics and women in CS industries – proposed the following interventions:

  • overhauling / updating GCSE-CS.
  • creating pathways via school and established community associations by which girls can access CS activities
  • using ‘role models’ to raise awareness and change female subject perception
  • making the industry more attractive for women.

Tapping into feminine constructivism to address real-world problems with accessible CS resources created the perfect learning environment for promoting key inspirational drivers for girls to study CS, and one which could be adapted to shape and enhance our CS syllabus in order to develop not only skills but career aspiration. Based on this research, my grounded theory to move forward establishes three core principles: ‘OPP’ – overhauling, providing and promoting. These require a joined-up approach from Enablers to support and deliver the concepts that will underpin female participation in CS.

The table below proposes a set of interventions to address equity and access built around the three approaches encompassed by OPP which, if delivered by enabler stakeholders, can establish an environment that nurtures the drivers identified which tap into ‘feminine constructivism’, inspiring more females to study and pursue computer science.


Figure 1:Interventions to address female underrepresentation in computer science at GCSE proposed under the OPP model

Source: Mannion (2018)


References

Cotteleer, M. & Sniderman, B. (2018, December 18). Forces of Change, Industry 4.0. Deloitte Insights. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/focus/industry-4-0/overview.html

Dee, T., & Gershenson, S. (2017). Unconscious Bias in the Classroom: Evidence and Opportunities. Mountain View, CA: Google Inc. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/O6Btqi

Fisher, J. Lang, C. Craig, A. Forgasz, H. McLeod, A. (2016). Digital Divas: Putting the Wow into Computing for Girls. Clayton, VIC: Monash University Publishing. Retrieved from http://books.publishing.monash.edu/apps/bookworm/view/Digital+Divas/186/00_cover.html

Mannion, M. (2018, June) Inspiring more girls into computer science. Paper presented at the London Computing Education Research Symposium. Retrieved from https://cerc.kcl.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/314/2018/06/Inspiring-more-girls-into-computer-science-final-1.pdf

Papert, S. & Harel, I. (1991). Situating Constructionism. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.papert.org/articles/SituatingConstructionism.html

Royal Society (2017). After the reboot: Computing education in UK schools. London. Retrieved from https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/projects/computing-education/computing-education-report.pdf

United Nations [UN] (2005). Gender equality and empowerment of women through ICT. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/public/w2000-09.05-ict-e.pdf