Are enough girls going into Computing? And if not, what can be done about it? Rachel Arthur explores this complex issue…

With Computer Science now becoming the fastest growing degree subject, with 24,900 people due to start courses in September – up seven percent on previous years you might expect to see similar growth in minority groups choosing to take the subject. This year fewer girls took a GCSE in Computing than boys, in fact, only 22% of the entrants in 2022 were female.

But despite fewer girls picking the subject, they did perform well with 40.6 percent of female entrants in England gaining a grade 7 or above, compared with 32.2 percent of male entrants. While this doesn’t give us the full picture of their performance and progress compared with other subjects it does show that the girls achieved strong grades in GCSE Computing.

So what is the problem?

The data are clear – diverse teams perform best in all industries, including in tech. However, the pipeline of female computer scientists is not meeting the demand for a more diverse workforce. In 2019, only 19% of jobs in tech were filled by women according to a report by Women in Technology. This is something that needs to change, and this change must start in schools.

So, why are so few girls choosing to take the GCSE and what can we as teachers do to help address the balance?

Practical tips for increasing uptake:

  1. Make it relevant. 

Computer Science can be seen as a very abstract concept – especially when teaching programming. The amount that pupils need to learn about the concepts of programming in order to write code can make it feel so far removed from the application.

Four principles were proposed by Guzdial and Tew (2006) to help pupils contextualise their learning:

  • Learning activities were aligned with real-world scenarios
  • Topics were aligned with students’ interests
  • Assessments were aligned with the material which had been taught

This can be brought into your classroom by aligning your curriculum to projects that would be used in industry. Take your HTML scheme of work and turn it into a course in becoming a web designer with client briefs and projects from local businesses. These small tweaks make your curriculum more relevant.

2. Create a sense of belonging 

Research suggests that the most important factor for girls taking GCSE Computing is the feeling of being related to others and that a sense of belonging was a significant predictor of their motivation.

This need for a sense of belonging is a vicious cycle as if girls do not see themselves represented then they are often not motivated to study the subject. This then means there are no role models for the next cohort.

To break this cycle, you can bring more female role models into the classroom from industry or previous cohorts to increase that sense of belonging.

There is a lot of research into the type of role model we should use in the classroom which is discussed in the Factors that impact gender balance in computing report by the Raspberry Pi foundation.

3. Clubs and activities 

A great way to create a sense of belonging in your classroom is by running clubs and activities. Simply having a chat with the girls in your lessons, telling them that you’d love to see them at the after-school club, and making it clear it is for them and that they are welcome can have a huge impact on attendance.

Some suggestions of great clubs and activities to look at:

There is a fuller list of general competitions on the CAS website too.

4. Parental engagement 

Many studies have identified gender differences between learners in their attitudes towards Computing. When I was in the classroom, I heard pupils say girls don’t do computing”. But where do these attitudes come from?

Expectancy-value theory (Eccles et al., 1998) suggests that subject choice and career goals are affected by pupils’ expectations of what their parents and society think. There is also research to suggest that pupils are more likely to choose Computing if they feel supported and think they have a chance to succeed academically (Lent et al. 2008).

Targeting girls with positive phone calls home, especially in the run-up to options deadlines can have an impact on parents/carers as well as on pupils. Often a barrier for pupils picking Computing is their parents’/carers opinion on the subject, so why not pick up the phone and have a chat about the benefits of their child doing Computing?

When I was teaching this was my favourite way to end the week and remain focused on the positive things my pupils had done!

5. Careers

There can be a misconception that careers in Computing involve sitting in a dark room programming and this can be (understandably) off-putting. Combat this misconception by sharing how your lesson links to lesser-known computing-related careers that may spark the interest of your pupils.

The national careers service has a long list of careers that might be a good place to start!

6. Cross-curricular links 

To help demonstrate the breadth and reach of computing it can be a nice idea to establish some cross-curricular links. There was a lot of love for the links with music through Sam Aaron’s Sonic Pi as a simple and effective way to do this.

The Raspberry Pi foundation has also held a series of education research seminars on this topic – so they are always worth catching up on.

7. Classroom environment 

Changing the appearance and layout of their classroom can have an impact on girls’ attraction to the subject according to a recent report from the US, Stereotypes Undermine Girls’ Interest and Sense of Belonging in Computer Science. The research looked at 270 classrooms across the US and asked girls if they felt like they belonged in the subject. The pupils were shown two different computer science classrooms.

The first classroom was decorated with stereotypically geeky features such as science fiction books and posters, whilst the other was filled with art and nature posters, general-interest magazines, and plants. While the male students were indifferent to the two classrooms, 68% of female students chose the second classroom, revealing they were three times more likely to sign up for a Computer Science class if taught in such an environment.

So, why not swap out some of your displays for images of nature and plants to see if it makes your classroom feel more inclusive to girls?

With the world becoming more digital every day it is so important we equip all our pupils with the skills they need to access the technology careers of the future, so why not try some of these tips and see if it impacts on the participation of girls in GCSE Computing at your school too?

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