The number of girls participating in a computing education is on the decline
Friday 7th May 2021 | Blog entry: 1
Digital skills are a near-universal requirement for employment in the UK. The demand for advanced skills in computing is ever-growing.
Yet, the number of girls participating in a computing education is on the decline.
Recent reports have highlighted a national digital skills crisis, where 5.4 million (10%) working adults lack basic digital skills and 4.3 million (8%) have no basic digital skills at all. The digital skills shortage persists in the UK labour market and has been considered a ‘major risk’ to business and societal development. The pandemic has heightened our awareness around the vitality of technology, and the need for digital competency in driving innovation and growth across the economy in the aftermath of national lockdowns. It seems clearer than ever that knowledge and use of computer science and computing can open doors to a world of opportunity for young people in terms of their future careers, as well as how they navigate and engage within and beyond their social networks.
Engagement with technology appears to be generally fairly distributed amongst boys and girls in Western countries, although non-binary students are under-researched. However, beneath the surface, there seems to be gender disparities in the ways people engage with technology, especially in terms of internet inclusion and digital literacy. A recent survey by Ofcom found newer users of the internet – those who had used it for less than five years – were more likely to be women (9% women compared to 5% men), but had lower digital literacy skills and demonstrated less confidence online. The report also found that 51% of new users access the internet using only their mobile phone.
In the context of education, research demonstrates that in 2017, there were 30,000 fewer girls sitting for any computing qualification at age sixteen than before the new Computer Science curriculum was introduced in England, having replaced the ICT syllabus in 2014. A national picture of girls’ performance and attainment in computing found that girls were better represented prior to the curriculum change. Research in global contexts suggests that gender disparities in computing education are not universal, as representation in STEM education is considered more equitably distributed in countries particularly in the Global South. In England, however, girls are less likely to opt for GCSE Computer Science.
Why are girls less likely to opt for GCSE Computer Science in England?
A number of theories are emerging on the participation of girls in computing education. The shift in GCSE entries following the replacement of the ICT syllabus, and large representations of boys suggests the computer science curriculum seems to fit students with certain demographics and gender identities better than others. Its overarching focus on the technicalities and processes of computing education, such as programming, coding and representations of data, seems to align with the stereotypical past times of ‘geeks’, ‘nerds’ and ‘hackers’. Such stereotypes are not only gendered but are also said to operate a racist positioning where some groups might be considered stereotypically intelligent enough to ‘fit the label’, as opposed to black students whose achievements are often reduced by media representations and who may be considered ‘too cool’ or ‘resistant’ to manifest a ‘geeky’ identity. The Computer Science curriculum seems to neglect the potential for creative and collaborative approaches to computing pedagogy. For example, digital art and design are not prioritised but could improve perceptions of computing and appear more appealing to diverse students with different gender identities and expressions (see page 134). There is certainly evidence to suggest that girls are better represented when taking digitally creative computing courses compared to computer science.
Limited discussion at school and home around job opportunities where digital skills are an advantage also seem to obscure students’ perceptions of the subject as a viable option. Depictions of white, privately educated, male leaders of tech giants, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, can be used to inspire students in schools, often in the forms of pictures, quotations or wall displays. This seems to reinforce stereotypes that white, privately educated men are better suited for careers in computer science and technology. In the context of higher education, a lack of ‘people like me’ can deter some students from choosing a STEM degree, and this may similarly limit girls from developing and constructing desirable identities in computing at school. Having said that, research has found that when combining pupil-premium with gender and ethnicity, Chinese working-class girls and boys were better represented than their middle-class peers, and Chinese working-class girls were the only example where representation was better in computer science than ICT. Across STEM, girls in more equitable societies are generally more likely to opt for reading-related pathways, even when they perform better at mathematics and science than their male counterparts. This raises important questions around how intersectional studies might shed light on the complex participation patterns of girls in computing.
Girls’ attainment in GCSE computer science
Computer Science is widely considered as a more challenging and difficult GCSE option. When looking at gender gaps in attainment, analysis of the National Pupil Database in 2019 found girls who participate in GCSE Computer Science do typically better than boys, but when average attainment in other subjects was controlled, boys achieved 0.31 of a grade higher than girls. Reasons for this remain unclear, but these findings suggest girls may experience a lower sense of achievement and self-efficacy, which would affect their drive to participate and perform well. There is clearly more to learn about the factors that discourage girls and contribute to their underperformance in Computer Science. We have a unique opportunity to address this issue through the SCARI Computing research project.
The Subject Choice, Attainment and Representation in Computing Project
The SCARI Computing project aims to explore the factors that explain the participation and performance of girls in English secondary school computing with a particular focus on Computer Science exams. The study will use the National Pupil Dataset and School Workforce Census, alongside school case studies through quantitative and qualitative data collected from school managers, students, and documents, such as schemes of work and wall displays. We will be working with schools with a high uptake in GCSE Computer Science to understand the views of their students and staff, through student surveys, staff interviews, and to learn from their computing curriculums. We hope this will inform our current understandings of girls’ participation in computer science, as well as impact policies and educational interventions to reduce the participation and attainment gaps between diverse students in computing education.
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