The issue of female participation in STEM (Science,Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and digital technology is a hot topic at the moment. Since a peak of around 30% in the 1980s, the proportion of female undergraduates studying computer science has declined sharply.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in 2014, just over 9,000 women were studying computer science at UK universities compared to 52,000 men. Only 19% of the UK technology workforce is female and figures released by global technology companies paint an even bleaker picture – women hold only 17% of technology roles at Google, 15% at Facebook and 10% at Twitter.
In a world where the technology industry is growing at an unparalleled rate, we urgently need to increase the number of talented individuals of both genders choosing to study and work in this area.
Much has been said about the strengths women bring to the table – strong vision, communication skills, collaboration and creativity. It follows that an increase in female representation can only benefit the tech industry by making it better equipped to deal with future challenges.
The issue of the increasing gap between the proportion of men and women studying and working in digital technology is nothing new. A more recent phenomenon, however, is the genuine sense that changing agendas in education and the workplace, plus a broader cultural shift around how consumers engage with technology, mean that things might finally be about to change – or at least be able to change.
At the core of this optimism is a need to remodel the attitudes, expectations and ambitions of children – boys as well as girls – from an early age. The idea that all we need to do to engage girls in technology is to make computers, phones and tablets available in pink is, at best, a distraction from the real issue and at worst a backwards step, reinforcing unhelpful stereotypes.
If we look back at the historical reasons why computer science has come to be perceived as a primarily – if not exclusively – male domain, evidence suggests the release of the home computer in the 1980s directly coincided with a fall in the number of women studying computer science. The key issue was not the computer itself, rather the way in which it was marketed – with games and programmes designed with male interests in mind and advertising typically featuring young men working or playing alone on their computer.
Making the tech industry female-friendly is not about making it ‘feminine’, rather it is about making it less distinctively male. By removing some of the elements that, albeit unintentionally, create barriers to female participation – for example the way women are presented in computer games – we can move on to developing the areas that make studying and working in technology appealing to children of both genders.
One of the ways in which we can start to remove these barriers to participation is by harnessing the culture shift in how users perceive and engage with technologies. With greater access to devices, a dramatic increase in internet use, and the explosion of jobs in the industry over the past decade, this perception has changed. Computers, social networking and gaming are now ubiquitous – in fact, girls now outstrip boys in terms of SmartPhone ownership, gaming, and Facebook usage.
In terms of the creation of technology, the future looks bright for women here too. The general move away from passive consumption of content towards creation and curation – through blogs, social media, video and image sharing sites – is increasing the power and potential of young people to build content and skills simultaneously. At school and at home, encouraging children, particularly girls, to engage carefully and reflectively in creative activities online will help to ensure we make the most of this natural shift.
The recent introduction of coding and computer science as compulsory elements of the National Curriculum from primary school has the potential to have a huge impact in terms of increasing participation among girls and boys.
By making computing a mainstream subject, rather than an elective option which students must choose at the expense of another subject, there is an opportunity for children as young as four to be introduced to computational thinking, coding, and problem-solving challenges. Ian Livingstone CBE, creator of the Tomb Raider franchise and a leading digital skills advocate, likens the traditional approach to ICT teaching – focusing on usage of applications such as Microsoft Excel – as being like teaching pupils to read, but not to write.
Computer science, meanwhile, gives girls and boys the skills they need to create their own applications and to understand how technology works. This, combined with activities such as coding clubs – ideally run by older pupils for younger pupils – and hackathons, gives opportunities for students to be creative while developing the confidence and impetus to further their interest at university and beyond.
Of course, we won’t see the fruits of these labours straight away – today’s coding-savvy ten year-olds won’t be undergraduates for another eight years – but in carrying out the groundwork, we have the power to change the whole landscape.
There are now a significant number of female leaders in digital technology – from silicon roundabout start-ups to international brands like Google – gaining market share and column inches alike. We need to continue raising the profile and prestige of IT career options, drawing on the increasing need for highly skilled employees in digital technology, and moving away from the perception that computer science is all about bespectacled men writing code in darkened rooms.
The current lack of women on undergraduate courses and in technology careers creates a situation where some women are put off, not because they don’t enjoy the subject but because they don’t want to stand out. Others fear applying for jobs or university courses because they feel they may be ‘filling a quota’, rather than on the basis of their talents.
It is these habits and attitudes that need to change. We need to reach the point where it never crosses a girl’s mind that she couldn’t – or shouldn’t – consider a career in tech because of her gender. Although this may seem like a distant vision, change is already beginning to happen. At a recent Digital Leaders’ Conference for girls from across the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) there was a palpable sense of energy, excitement and possibility. Over 150 girls aged from 10-18 were supported by industry mentors from BT, Ogilvy, Capita, Discovery, Morgan Stanley, Accenture and more. They worked together on digital innovation challenges and devised some truly inspiring applications. If these girls are the future, it’s certainly looking bright.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 edition of Absolute Education magazine.