We are more connected than ever thanks to the likes of Facebook and Skype, and continue to develop digital solutions to streamline our lives. Advances in computer technologies have opened up new worlds of possibility, and there have never been more opportunities for programmers who are looking to build the next big thing.
However, if we don’t encourage more girls to get into coding, most of the programmers who will go on to shape our world will be men.
And the gap’s not just in coding.
Women are under-represented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) sectors generally, making up only 12.8% of the work force. Yet in STEM subjects up to GCSE level, the gender-split is almost 50:50. After this point, the majority of students taking these subjects are male, even though girls perform better than boys at GCSE and A Level.
Why aren’t more girls getting into technology?
The problem may come down to our expectations of what we’re good at. In an experiment carried out by Shelley Correll at Cornell University, mixed gender participants were asked to take a contrast sensitivity test to which there were no right or wrong answers.
The point of the test was to measure how well participants thought they had performed. Some were told that men tended to do better at the test, the others that there was no difference between genders. They were all given the same scores and then asked to assess how well they did. Male participants who were told that men performed better than average generally said that they had done better than women who were told the same.
Amongst participants who were told there was no difference in gender, there was no difference in their self-assessments. When female participants thought that they were at a disadvantage, they judged their performance more harshly. When they weren’t, they judged their performance similarly to the men. Correll’s study shows that negative stereotypes have a direct impact on our belief in our abilities and, in turn, influence our behaviour.
So how can we promote STEM subjects in school?
Celebrate more women in tech
STEM subjects have been historically perceived as male subjects due to stereotypes. Part of the reason for this is that women in STEM aren’t celebrated as widely as their male counterparts.
Everyone knows about Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, less people know about Ada Lovelace (acknowledged as the world’s first programmer), Bessie Coleman (the first African-American female pilot), and Hedy Lamarr who, in addition to being a movie star in the 30s and 40s, built a communications system which paved the way for the likes of Bluetooth and WiFi.
There are countless female role-models for girls who might be interested in pursuing STEM subjects. Sharing their stories and celebrating their achievements can inspire the next generation of female pioneers.
As a fun class activity, why not ask students to bring in example of a great STEM leader we don’t usually hear about and give a brief summary of their achievements?
Promote STEM programmes to your female students
There’s been a huge push recently to get girls involved in tech, but unless your students already have an active interest in STEM subjects, they may not know these are available to them. Promoting these to your students can be the difference between them pursuing these subjects and not.
There have been a number of initiatives started to support women and girls to seek out opportunities in tech. National Grid and VEX Robotics recently teamed up to get ‘Girls into STEM’, with grants offered to all girl teams from primary and secondary schools across the country to compete in the VEX IQ Challenge or the VEX Robotics Competition.
Stemettes, set up by Anne-Marie Imafidon, encourages girls to engage with STEM subjects through panel events, hackathons, exhibitions, and mentoring schemes. Project Ada (named after Ada Lovelace) is a site which covers news, opinion, and features on women and gender equality in technology. Learning about the free resources and funded opportunities that are out there will enable schools to champion girls in these areas.
Set-up your own STEM Club
As well as exploring initiatives and organisations that promote girls in tech, schools can start STEM clubs to foster a positive environment where girls can learn about STEM outside of the classroom.
At most schools there are a lot of extra-curricular sport, music, and drama groups. A STEM group could be the perfect way to show your students that learning about science and technology can be fun. It’s also a great way to promote good relationships between students and staff and, if teachers from different STEM areas get on board, a way to promote good relationships across departments.
Another reason to consider starting a STEM club is that it could help build confidence in students. Students can be encouraged to pursue STEM through positive reinforcement, for example, by recognising their achievements through award schemes, or by taking part in competitions or fairs.
Shaping attitudes, shaping the future
Our perceptions of our own abilities and our prejudices about certain jobs shape our behaviour. In order for girls to gain confidence in STEM areas there needs to be a shift away from outdated attitudes that these subjects are for boys.
To stop the post-GSCE drop off, we need to try to combat stereotypes that boys are better at STEM subjects. We need to show that engaging with technology at an early age may lead to careers that they never even thought about. As traditional jobs are replaced by digital equivalents and exciting new fields emerge, there has never been a better time to get girls involved.