A default assumption about the lack of gender diversity in STEM subjects, such as coding and computer science, is that it always existed. Historic data shows this isn’t the case.
Following the invention of the first digital computer by John Vincent Atanasoff in the 1940s, computer science historian Nathan Ensmenger noted computer coding and programming were perceived as “routine and mechanical” activities, and “jobs for women”. For two decades, female programmers dominated the scene. A notable example is Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-American actress, who invented the Frequency-hopping spread spectrum used in Bluetooth technology today.
In the 1960s, perception shifts led to increasing numbers of men pursuing computer science studies. According to US federal government data, the proportion of women in computing and mathematical professions reduced to just 27%. More recently, according to UNESCO’s 2017 ground-breaking report, “Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM”, only 3% of global female students in Higher Education chose Information and Communication Technologies studies.
This dramatic decline could be attributed to the home PC as a ’boy’s toy’ in the 1980s, where young boys were often more encouraged to play on computers, while girls were encouraged to undertake less ’scientific’ forms of play. Fast forward to 2021, and this mindset still pervades how we educate and play with younger generations. But change is now upon us.
Creating opportunities for young girls to be exposed to coding and other STEM subjects at a young age is crucial. It promotes gender equality in education and the workplace, but in computer science itself. A digital world comprising algorithms chiefly programmed by males, and with AI techniques becoming more sophisticated, means it is inevitable we will face the problem of unpicking gender-biased coding and programming, in years to come.
Early exposure for girls is critical for future interest and confidence levels, especially in the 9-12 age groups, when early inclinations about future careers start to form. Over recent years, a plethora of public and private programmes, corporate campaigns and investment initiatives encourage more young girls to enter coding at all education levels.
In 2019, the UK Department of Education granted £2.4 million in funding to the ‘Gender Balance in Computing’ research project, a joint initiative from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, STEM Learning, British Computer Society (BCS), Apps for Good and WISE. The objective was trial schemes to improve girls’ participation in computing and to investigate the various barriers preventing girls from studying computer science at school.
Inside and outside school curriculums, a clear barrier is an access to technology and the tools to teach it correctly. However, the pandemic caused global learning to migrate online. EdTech platforms and organisations flourished, offering opportunities to learn to code and brought the subject more into the mainstream – raising awareness levels amongst girls.
As EdTech platforms continue to drive awareness, they use innovative techniques to create a ’gamification’ approach to learning. This helps young students – boys and girls – to learn practical computer skills, whilst also having fun. Keeping it playful and encouraging meaningful learning, is key to keeping girls involved in coding.
Online EdTech platforms also bring fun and educational online coding courses to the home, inspiring young female students to get involved in coding in their leisure time and outside formal school curriculums, while maintaining the essence of play – a win for the parents too. From learning through building apps to developing interactive games, showing young girls practical, achievable applications and the wide range of other coding applications, is crucial to inspiring creativity and ensuring sustained interest into later years. The majority of future jobs will require some sort of proficiency in coding hence, coding must be made relevant to young girls and their dreams and ambitions, whatever they may be.
Offering personalised, one-to-one virtual learning via EdTech platforms can also help break down barriers related to confidence. Removing intimidating comparisons can encourage young girls to learn, study and play at their own pace, boost self-belief, as skills continue to improve.
Where gender diversity is lacking, having inspirational role models is also crucial to inspire young girls to succeed. EdTech platforms and learning institutions are places where young female students can be inspired by leading female teachers in the industry, become more confident, and receive guidance on continuing personal coding journeys.
Getting more young girls into coding and bridging future gender gaps may mean changing the collective tune. Ironically, it includes borrowing some inspiration from the 1940s and appreciating that girls might just benefit in the long run from more targeted screen time, not less.