Parents and their role in the subject and career choices of their daughters studying Computer Science
Friday 7th October 2022 | Blog entry: 3
In the summer of 2022, I was offered an opportunity as part of the King's College London Undergraduate Research Fellowship scheme to explore the thoughts of parents in relation to subject choices and career guidance (Undlien, 2019). The project formed part of the SCARI Computing research project which explores ways of improving gender diversity in computing education. I undertook interviews with eight parents whose daughters are currently studying GCSE Computer Science. The research aims to answer the question: what role do parents play in girls' subject and career choices?
During my research journey, I realised that this question is complex, and one must take a more nuanced look at the overall family dynamic; considering factors such as siblings' interests, parents' occupation, and parents' knowledge of the education system.
Who are the parent participants?
"Any walk of life, any job, any career, will involve the use of a computer."
In the process of recruiting participants, we asked teachers from four co-educational state schools in England to invite parents and carers of girls doing GCSE Computer Science to an interview. Parents then volunteered themselves if they were interested. Since the study involved self-selection, we had to ask ourselves, who are the parents who agreed to participate? For most parents, their knowledge of, and appreciation of the value of research, was the primary motivating factor for their participation. One of the participants was particularly drawn to taking part in research because she believed it would help to support her daughter in an increasingly digitalised world: "...all we're gonna do is keep snowballing with advances in technology, aren't we? And I think it's for me these sorts of things that you're doing and the research you're doing can only help that, can't it?” This parent believes in the power of research and the value it can bring to wider society, for example, acquiring knowledge that could help her children socially navigate the progress of technology and take advantage of it in their futures.
Information relating to the specific demographic characteristics of the parents was sought ahead of interview. Parents were invited to complete a short, online survey asking them information about their identity, education and job history. All eight parents who participated in this research described themselves as White British or White European. They all identified as the mother of a child taking GCSE Computer Science. They were also all university-educated, except for one.
The sample, however, varied in terms of their occupations. Only two participants came from a Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths (STEM) background, and a few of them did humanities subjects, which suggests the parents in our study saw the value in computing subjects, irrespective of their STEM or non-STEM occupation. Therefore, this self-selected sample is somewhat limited in its bias towards university-educated, white women.
Digital skills for the future
"They pick up things or know how to do things that I didn't even know."
Despite parents' willingness to support their daughter’s study of GCSE Computer Science, parents often experience a generational gap in terms of the lack of up-to-date information about computer science and the careers it leads to because it is a relatively new field in both academia and industry (Shallit, 1995; Brown et al., 2014). One parent said “She's definitely more tech savvy than me. She teaches (me). She shows me things... she's definitely better than me. They pick up things or know how to do things that I didn't even know”. The participants' average age was around 50 years old, and during their school period, GCSE Computer Science was not a widely recognised option, so they were less knowledgeable of the field, and could not give 'instructions' on how to navigate through a career in computing. However, what became obvious through the interviews was that the parents acknowledged the importance of computing skills in the labour market, potentially by seeing that their workplace is being gradually computerised. One of the parents said during the interview: "any walk of life, any job, any career will involve the use of computers in some way", which suggests she thinks that any job will inevitably include some work with computers. So, they see the virtues of preparing their daughters to face this new workplace structure and fill in this digital prowess gap. With that in mind, there is strong enthusiasm among the participants towards their daughters taking GCSE Computer Science, so as to develop the computing skills that will prove essential when they enter the labour market.
Computers and the home
In some families, parents play a pivotal role in influencing the career trajectories of their children. This influence could come into play in different forms. Parents could advise their children and have a strong influence which can directly determine their future careers. For example, pragmatically explaining how STEM subjects at school could be beneficial in professional life, such as earning potential (Swaroopa, 2014; Rozek et al., 2017). Accordingly, a participant has highlighted the competitive earning potential as a bonus to her daughter's prospective computing career -"my son keeps telling me the earning potential is really good." Furthermore, from this practical and professional perspective, one of the participants mentions the ongoing transition toward working from home and says: "of course, as technology progresses, and she's going to use it more and more [...] in a home life". Similarly, another participant added that the Covid-19 pandemic is an accelerator of this remote working mode: "I think computer science is so popular through the pandemic of people realising it's a job which is going to be very much in demand".
One of the parents described how a computer is an integrated part of her career and says, "most of the days I'm on my computer", which implies that children see her working on it at home. This real-life example points out that parents can, to a certain extent, influence their child's academic interests, intentionally or not. These circumstantial factors can shape a young person's interest in computing, that are independent of their parent's opinion. For example, Craig et al. (2018) explore unspoken factors that may shape a young person's choice to do STEM-oriented subjects, such as a parent's occupation. In Craig et al.'s (2018) study, one of the parents was a librarian who used the computer at home, while her son saw this and imitated the typing in his own time. So, the surroundings he grew up in sparked his curiosity in computing, and he took it further for undergraduate studies. This example suggests that what happens in the home and in children's free time is fundamental in building the computing skills that will prove useful in a future academic journey (Social Tech Trust, 2022).
The value of STEM social connections
Despite engaging with their daughter’s computing studies at school, most parents indicated that they felt pressure to find meaningful work experience for their child. However, many also felt that they had little to no support from the school to ensure this happened. As a consequence, parents had to rely on their circle of friends or family members for help, a network of relationships also known as social capital (Bourdieu, 1986).
Parents in the study who had contacts who worked in the STEM fields had managed to secure their daughters’ work experience roles in a relevant field, which would potentially benefit any computing career goals they might have. For example, one participant said she asked her partner to find a job for their daughter and therefore, her daughter gained experience working with datasets, an activity linked to her programming interest. These connections have provided her daughter with an early start in a career in computing, where they will feel confident in translating knowledge acquired in class to the workplace. A study conducted by Zhang and Jones (2009) points to the role of social capital in the career trajectories of IT professionals. It posits that the greater a person's social capital, the more likely they are to find a job in IT. The first milestone, such as finding work experience, can lead to a period of building connections and gaining valuable technical insights that will be crucial in the actual job interview at an adult stage. However, not every family can support their child by offering work experience, so children whose parents have contact in STEM fields will have considerable advantage.
Tech savvy siblings and knowledgeable parents
"...it was probably his influence actually more than ours as parents that made her take GCSE [Computer Science]."
During the interviews, parents indicated that they believed that studying computer science can give someone an edge in the workplace. Most of the participants had received an undergraduate degree and generally knew how to navigate through the English education system via traditional routes, in a way that allows their children to translate academic merits to the work environment.
However, the general knowledge about how the educational system works did not always appear to be enough to support girls through their studies in GCSE Computer Science. For example, one parent said “...it was probably his influence, actually, more than ours as parents that made her take GCSE”. Siblings of their child were often cited as a source of practical help when it came to the curriculum content. Based on the research, siblings' attitudes and beliefs about technology can influence a girl's perception of computers (Creamer, 2007), siblings have more hands-on experience, and can facilitate their sisters' studies in a more personal and individual manner. For example, the participant's son studies physics at university, and he often sits down with his sister to go through the logistics of programming. A similar pattern is also shown in another participant, who says that the eldest son has first introduced her daughter to computer science, "I think she used to go, my eldest son set up a coding club at school". Therefore, siblings are perhaps the 'hands', and parents are the 'minds' behind the decision of the parent’s child to pursue computer science.
Parents challenging stereotypes
The motivation to overcome social barriers can perhaps be facilitated by conversations at home, where parents talk extensively to their girls about important topics, such as biases that teachers might have about girls studying STEM subjects and come up with strategies on how to overcome those. For example, one of the parents worked on a gender balance project and had often told her daughter about the historical origins of this male dominance in STEM - "we've talked about it from a very young age, so she is very aware of under-representation, and it's nothing to do with the innate ability". These discussions at home shape girls' experiences at school and dictate to them how they should critically perceive the visible gender disparities in their computing classroom. Therefore, these conversations may give girls reassurance, strength and confidence, which is very much needed to manage structural forces that exist in STEM and computer science more specifically.
Parents understand the importance of studying GCSE Computer Science. They see how their own jobs have transformed over the years by incorporating computers to do most of the tasks, so they can see how these computing skills may benefit their daughters in the future. Siblings may fill a digital skills “gap” in the family and provide encouragement for participation in GCSE Computer Science. Parents who managed to find work experience in relevant computing fields enable their child not only to see the practical application of their learning at school, but also provide them with the opportunities to see the relevance to their child’s future life. Whether they discussed the prospects of this career or actually provided an opportunity to try it first-hand, they all shared a vision that computing skills are what employers will be looking at when their children enter the job market.
By Anna Shirstova
Supervised by Jessica Hamer & Meggie Copsey-Blake
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