What’s turning girls off computer science?


In this long read, computing education expert Rowan Roberts explores why fewer girls than ever are taking the new computer science GCSE and suggests how teachers and parents can help girls to emerge from primary schools with a more robust sense of themselves as computational thinkers.

Have you ever tried putting ‘computers for boys’ and ‘computers for girls’ into a Google image search? The results are shocking.

For boys, the images, unsurprisingly enough, contain plenty of pictures of boys and computers. Just your standard, run-of-the-mill laptops and desktops, with smiling cartoons and photos of boys absorbed in whatever is on the screen.

computing for boys / girls

Appropriately, related searches recommended by Google suggest words to do with education, programming and fun: cartoon, primary school, hacker, classroom, internet, library, technology and study.

So what do you think happens when we search for ‘computers for girls? Brace yourself…

computing for boys / girls

Wall to wall pink toy computers and accessories. A diamante-encrusted mouse. Flowery laptop stickers. Products designed to be desired by girls and purchased by their parents. And scarcely a single human girl actually using any of the devices. Perhaps even more revealing is the stark difference we find in the related searches. This time, the suggested words are cute, hipster, bling, blonde and model – all of which focus on appearance (of both product and user), rather than on functionality or enjoyment of using a computer. We even find the words ‘behind’ and ‘upset’, suggesting an association between girls using computers and being unhappy or incapable.

This is at a time when computing has been made a compulsory part of the National Curriculum in schools and the ICT GCSE is being replaced with a new computer science GCSE.

So what’s going on?

In our work with schools at London CLC we have found the move from ICT to computing to be inspiring and energising, but the same cannot be said for all GCSE students. Compared with ICT, computing has been chosen by fewer girls, black pupils and pupils entitled to free school meals – groups which were already less likely to participate in computing-related studies than their white male peers. And, as more schools have adopted the new GCSE (though, worryingly, still fewer than half), it’s got slightly worse. An even smaller proportion of 2017 GCSE computing entrants were female than the year before – just 20%. There was also a small decrease in the proportion of girls who chose the soon-to-be-phased-out ICT GCSE. It’s worth noting, though, that among those who did choose this subject, girls tended to get better results.

So why does this change in the curriculum seem to be having such a detrimental effect on girls’ enthusiasm for the subject?

While the ICT GCSE focused on the use of computers and software, the new curriculum places far more emphasis on programming. The name of the subject itself, ‘computing’ (I sometimes hear KS1 pupils call it ‘computering’), describes a process of active engagement with technology. And, as those Google searches showed, this is a picture with which boys appear to be very comfortable but which girls seem less encouraged to embrace.

It hasn’t always been so.

The one suggestion in the girls’ list of words that did make me smile was the phrase “computer science”.

Ada Lovelace

Women have a long history of participating in computer science, even if their contribution is less visible than those of some more familiar male names. Take Ada Lovelace ­– regarded by many as the creator of the first ever computer algorithm. In the 19th century Lovelace worked on the operational methodology for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. She wrote what is known as “Note G”; a detailed, diagrammatic representation of the computational process the machine was designed to carry out. Unfortunately this algorithm never got a chance to be test-driven as the machine itself wasn’t completed.

However, Lovelace’s process was highly influential and she developed the idea of computing as being a kind of “poetical science”, implying that it represented an amalgamation of our traditionally separate conceptions of logic and creativity. She even hypothesised that computers might one day be used to create music.

A hundred or so years later, that’s exactly what another female computer science pioneer, Pauline Oliveros, was experimenting with. A central figure in the development of post-war electronic music, Oliveros designed a method of electronic signal processing called the Expanded Instrument System, and was particularly influential in the area of what she called Deep Listening, a way of enriching one’s awareness and understanding of sound and music.

In the early days of computer science there were plenty of figures like Oliveros pioneering in the field. NASA employed many female computer scientists to develop and operate software used in the space programme. As more and more women began studying at universities, computer science enjoyed a steady increase in female participation, right up until the early 1980s.

However, whereas in most subjects the gender gap continued to shrink after that point, and in many there are now more female undergraduates than male ones, in computing the opposite is true. Something happened in the 1980s that turned women away from computer science. I believe we can attribute that shift to one factor above all.

The personal computer.

It was around the mid 1980s that computers began to find their way into family homes. Not in huge numbers, as they were still large and expensive, but they were heavily advertised and started to find a place in the popular consciousness. And they were largely marketed towards men. Adverts would often depict computer use as a father-son activity, and the first few computer games to appear on the scene were generally aimed at boys. As the gaming industry mushroomed, this bias only increased, with the introduction of female characters who always seemed to be either helpless victims (Princess Peach) or heavily sexualised (perhaps most famously, Lara Croft). As “geek culture” grew it became increasingly apparent that girls were not really invited to the party. Aside from the practical implications of simple physical access to computers in the home, this developing culture clearly had an impact on girls’ feelings of  confidence and self-worth around computing.

Freedom to fail

From an educational point of view, we know that confidence is enormously important when it comes to pupils’ engagement in a subject. It also affects the way they approach learning. A 2015 OECD study found that students who approached a subject with a confidence in their own aptitude or ability felt more free to fail. This allowed them to engage in the trial and error processes that are fundamental to learning in maths and science subjects.

This approach involves risk and, arguably, female students tend to be more risk-averse. It’s not surprising when you consider the way we speak to children. A 2016 study from the Journal of Pediatric Psychiatry found that, after a trip to the emergency department of a hospital, parents were four times more likely to tell their daughters to be ‘careful’ than their sons. Whether we intend it or not, the evidence shows that we speak to male and female children differently.

There’s also a difference in the language we use to describe men and women and the fields in which they tend to work. A 2015 study found that people working in male dominated fields such as maths and physics are far more likely to be described as brilliant or geniuses. This contributes to a misconception that certain subjects are off-limits to certain people – that without natural talent you’re unlikely to be able to keep up with your more brilliant peers.

And, of course, this duality filters its way into children’s understanding of their place in the world. Children as young as six echoed the idea, in another study, that brilliance or giftedness is more of a male trait, and that girls must work harder to become good at something. Girls were less likely than boys to participate in an activity when they were told it was for “really, really smart” children, but did show interest in a very similar game when told it was for children who try “very, very hard”. Interestingly this difference only seemed to affect children aged six or over; five-year-olds reacted similarly to both games, regardless of gender.

As a result, as they grow up, girls start to take the view that it’s really important not to get things wrong, and they probably won’t know how to get it right without the help of someone naturally gifted. Given that, is it really surprising that they lack the confidence to take risks in computing? In class, when I’ve been asked questions like “am I doing it right?”, “where should I click now?” or even “can you do it for me?” they’ve almost always been asked by girls. It’s sad because it’s the very process of figuring out the answers on your own that helps a child to develop as a computational thinker. It’s here that, instead of learning helplessness, you learn strategies to be independent and creative with technology. To enjoy it, rather than fearing it. Children with low confidence and a fear of failure tend to approach a subject with a fixed mindset. They’ll seek to gain approval and avoid criticism. They’ll choose easier activities which they know they can get right, seeing mistakes as failures. They are more likely to describe themselves as “bad at” the subject.

A growth mindset

But if we can nurture our learners to develop a growth mindset, they can become more confident in computing. They would seek useful feedback on their progress, eager to learn what they could do differently next time. They would choose activities that challenge their skills, even in the knowledge that they might make a mistake, because they will know that mistakes are actually really useful in programming. You can’t learn to debug if you do everything right first time! And so they’d understand that there isn’t really any such thing as being ‘good at’ computing. It’s just about having enough practice to find it slightly easier than you did before.

But all this is, of course, easier said than done, and it’s hard to get our kids to the point where they have this kind of confidence. Part of the challenge is simply in the expectations placed on them by our education system. It’s all very well being told you can make mistakes in computing, but where does that leave you when you get to your exams?

And there are plenty of other factors which seem to influence girls’ journey through the world of computing education. Cracking the Gender Code focuses on American children but its findings are certainly applicable to education in the UK. It identifies that many girls find themselves in a much more inclusive atmosphere early in their education, with role models and initiatives helping to inspire the belief that computing can be for girls. But, as girls get older and move up into high school, these influences often become outweighed by factors such as the fact that, for example, fewer of their female friends have an interest in computing. It’s not until university that many of these young women find a renewed motivation to pursue computing – and by this point it may be too late.

Although the gender gap is less of a problem with younger children, we are not teaching in a vacuum in primary education; we know that when they leave year 6 they will be subject to a whole set of influences we can’t control. However, perhaps we can at least better prepare them and try to ensure that girls can emerge from primary schools with a more robust sense of themselves as computational thinkers.

What can we do?

As somebody who teaches programming to thousands of different children I have a few suggestions.

  • Model a growth mindset yourself; catch yourself next time you say something like “I’m a terrible singer” or even “you’re very good and drawing”. Try to create an environment where children see that skill is plastic and can change, and ask your colleagues to help you.
  • Challenge learned helplessness; when a child asks you to help them and you know they don’t really need it, fire the question back at them. “I don’t know, what does happen when you click that block?”
  • Visibly enjoy the subject (particularly if you’re part of an underrepresented group). I sometimes make Scratch projects to solve simple classroom problems such as allocating different subjects to groups at random. Not because it’s easier than drawing names out of a hat but because it’s more fun, and I want the children to know that I think so.
  • Expose children to a range of role models: Yes, Tim Berners-Lee has made a huge contribution to the culture and society we find ourselves in today, but so have Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper and Annie Easley – and they’ve all done it in a world that made it harder for them.
  • Use enquiry-based approaches like ScratchMaths: this particular resource scaffolds really well but it also encourages exploration and experimentation.

Many of the programming activities I’ve seen in my time working in computing education have focused more on outcome than process, and I think this is one of the things that puts a lot of our girls off. It means that there is a single desired outcome and implies that if you don’t achieved it you have failed – a notion that we know tends to be destructive to girls’ learning.

It is important for all children to know that, as NASA computer scientist Annie Easley once said, “If you want to… you can do anything you want to, but you have to work at it.” You can still think of talent as a gift, but just remember that it’s a gift that you have the ability to give to yourself. All you need is a bit of practice.

  • Rowan Roberts is a teaching and learning consultant at London Connected Learning Centre, an award-winning organisation that helps schools and other settings use digital technologies to improve learning.
  • Contact London Connect Learning Centre to find out how we can help your school to make better use of digital technologies. We offer teacher CPD, curriculum support, tech support, consultancy and research.