Despite the phenomenal rise in computing over the last 50 years, the birth of the Internet and our ever-increasing reliance on technology, women are still not engaging with computer science at the same rate as men.
This has been outlined in a recent report from the University of Roehampton in the UK, which reveals that only 9% of girls schools offer computing at A-level, compared with 44% of boys schools and 25% of mixed-sex sixth forms and colleges.
The report shows that in 2016 only a minority of UK schools (29%) entered pupils for GCSE computing — despite it being a foundation subject on the national curriculum. The figure is even lower at A-level, with only 24% of schools entering their students for the qualification.
Things don’t fair any better in further education either, with the Digest of Education statistics revealing the percentage of females who took an undergraduate degree in computer science in 1970/1971 was 14%. This rose to 37% in 1983/1984 but gradually declined to 18% in 2010/2011.
In the current age, these statistics are depressing, especially as being a “computer scientist”, rather than “computer literate”, is becoming increasingly important. And as deep learning, machine learning, big data and artificial intelligence enter common usage, it is useful for all genders to have an appreciation and engagement with these technologies — not just the boys.
The geek effect
But on top of this poor provision in UK schools, one factor putting women off the subject is almost certainly the geek culture that surrounds computer science. You only need to read Steven Levy’s classic book Hackers to get an idea of where the geeks in computing came from.
And this is still how many people see computer scientists: as nerds, with no social skills and pale complexions – pizza-eating, coke-guzzling geeks who are chained to a keyboard for days on end.
Even Bill Gates — one of the richest men in the world after forming Microsoft — did not make being a geek cool. If anything, he personified what a geek was. So, although people may have envied his financial status, it’s fair to say that they probably didn’t aspire to be like the man himself — even if he did change the world.
Steve Jobs, on the other hand, was a little different. As one of the founders of Apple, he represented cool, or at least Apple did. But he still never quite got to the same levels of “cool” that somebody like Virgin’s Richard Branson has achieved.
A man’s world?
Then there is gaming, which is dominated by men — both in terms of game design and the players themselves. The educational website Women in Computer Science explains how the first computers were built with the boys in mind: “The first personal computers were essentially early gaming systems that firmly catered to males.”
Even though the first gaming computers came out over 30 years ago, this is still having an effect today — and the way women are portrayed in computer games has been the subject of much recent discussion.
Female characters are massively underrepresented in computer games — over 85% of all characters in games are male. And when female characters are included, they are often portrayed in a sexy and sexist way.
But although these stereotypes persist, things are gradually changing — with 49% of the British gaming population now female.
It is clear, then, that while things are improving for women in tech, there is still a long way to go before girls in school see computer science as an interesting and viable career choice. And while initiatives like Girls Who Code and Code First: Girls are making a difference, we need a wider societal change to encourage more women to enter the discipline in the future.
Two of the first computer programmers — back when “programming” involved using cables, dials and switches to physically rewire the machine — Jean Bartik and Ada Lovelace were women. And role models who are active today, include Sue Black and Wendy Hall, both receiving honours for their contributions to computing.
These women — recognised as pioneers in computer science — have helped in the creation, development and imagining of what computers and electronics can do in the modern world. And we need more women like Bartik, Lovelace, Black and Hall who can act as role models for young girls, to help spread the word that these days computing isn’t just for the boys.
- Graham Kendall is professor of computer science and Provost/CEO/PVC, University of Nottingham
- This article was originally published on The Conversation