Computing: is it a girl thing?

The Algorithm of Happiness

The Algorithm of Happiness.
Michele Travierso, Flickr

This year is the 25th anniversary of the world wide web and this week (3-9 March) is the focus for the UK Hour of Code.

Today is also International Women’s Day.

It’s been pointed out that fewer young women choose to go into the more highly paid industry sectors, particularly Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) compared to their male counterparts.  STEM covers a wide range of industries and the gender disparity isn’t uniform across all of them. But computing really does stand out.

What is so offensive about computing?

The statistics

The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU. Only 17% of all technology jobs in the UK are held by women.

GCSE maths is compulsory for boys and girls. But as soon as girls get an element of choice, computing features low on the list. In 2012, computing had the lowest proportion of female entrants at AS level, at just 8.2%, and 7.8% at A2 level. Lower, even, than the much discussed proportion in physics, at 23.4% at AS level. At higher education level, the proportion of female applicants to computer science was at 13.3% in 2010/11.

The Royal Academy of Engineering, EngineeringUK and other engineering bodies are crying out for more young women to choose engineering, recognising that diversity of talent at entry inspires more diverse products and services at the other end of the process.

Will it always be thus?

Not all countries have low participation by women. In 1987 more than 50% of application/analyst programmers and system analyst/designers in Singapore were female, and the majority of graduates from computer courses were female. In Estonia, 44% of science and technology graduates are women.

What do women want?

According to a research paper sponsored by Cisco, 90% of women want jobs that help people and 80% of girls want creative, independent job roles. They want to travel, meet people and improve the world. Most think that technology jobs don’t fit the bill.

Hmm. Why such a disconnect?

The whole world is increasingly controlled by computer programs of one description or another, so it follows that all kinds of creative inventions, including those that help people, are awaiting their launch.  The possibilities are endless.

Avid Larizadeh

Avid Larizadeh. Photo by Steve Bowbrick

  • In 1980, Rachel Zimmerman created the Blissymbol printer and software programme that allows people with severe disabilities to communicate independently. Definitely “helping people”.
  • Avid Larizadeh – a computer coder who worked at eBay and Skype before branching out on her own to use her coding skills in her own business – the fashion accessories design firm, Boticca.  She also leads The UK Hour of Code initiative. Definitely “creative”.

The human face of technology

Could part of the problem be that the human face of computing (and technology in general) is represented by Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerman and Alan Turing?

Are the following women as well-known?

  • Ada Lovelace – The first ever computer programmer (1843)

    Ada Lovelace, writer of the first computer program

    Ada Lovelace, writer of the first computer program

  • Margaret Rock – Code-breaker in the team that cracked the Enigma code during WWII at Bletchley Park, where women outnumbered men four to one
  • Erna Schneider Hoover – Awarded one of the first ever software patents – for a computerised telephone switching system
  • Sandra Kurtzig – One of the “heroes of Silicon Valley” who invented monitoring and information-sharing software for businesses
  • Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper – The “mother of computing” and “the queen of software” who taught computers to talk to each other and who wrote the manual for the first computer.

Who runs YouTube? Yahoo? Facebook?

Women do. Are they household names among UK schoolgirls?

  • Ruchi Sanghvi – Vice President of Dropbox

    Sheryl Sandberg Facebook Chief Operating Officer

    Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer

  • Sheryl Sandberg – Chief Operating Officer of Facebook
  • Melissa Mayer – President and CEO of Yahoo!
  • Susan Wojcicki – CEO of YouTube and previously Vice President of Google
  • Joanna Shields OBE – Previously Managing Director of Google Europe, CEO Bebo, Vice President and General Manager of Facebook, CEO Tech City UK
  • Christie Blair, CMO and Senior Vice President of Cisco Systems.

Computing: it is a girl thing – spread the word

A number of women are spreading the word.

  • Dr Sue Black, Senior Research Associate in the Software Systems Engineering group  in the the Department of Computer Science at University College London and a Senior Consultant with Cornerstone Global Associates, wrote “If I can do it, so can you” upon winning the PepsiCo Women’s Inspiration Network award .

    Sangeet Bhullar founder of WISE KIDS

    Sangeet Bhullar, founder of WISE KIDS

  • Speaking at an event which celebrated the history of women in cyber security, Stephanie Daman, CEO of the Cyber Security Challenge, appealed: “Take the time to encourage women to see the profession as one they should consider.”
  • Dr Sangeet Bhullar, whose PhD entailed the writing of a computer program that measured and analysed signals form the heart, went on to found WISE KIDS – a not-for-profit company based in Wales that promotes digital literacy. Her message to girls: “If I can do it you can too.  Enter the field and find a mentor. Take one step at a time, and remember we carry on learning and developing our interests – I trained as an engineer but then got the opportunity to learn and solve problems by writing computer programmes. Now, 20 years on, I am what we would call a ‘Learning Technologist’, promoting digital literacy. The key things is to keep trying and be open to new learning”.

Emma Mulqueeny, co-founder of Rewired State, the largest independent developer network in the UK with over 1000 software developers and designers, calls for one simple change: “teach programming in Year 5 and thereafter make it a relevant and necessary part of the curriculum.  Then you’ll see the girls”.

Where’s Wales in all this?

The Welsh Government published Guidance for Schools and Colleges in Wales in 2012. It  considered numerous examples of initiatives and collaborations across a wide range of STEM disciplines and included reference to the WISE initiative and events and competitions including EESW, Big Bang Cymru the CREST Awards.  There’s also the Girls Into Engineering program of events – Gower College Swansea is hosting an event in July.

But there’s a way to go. ESTnet, the electronic and software technologies network for Wales, is headed by a woman, Avril Lewis. However, at last year’s inaugural ESTnet Awards, which celebrate the excellence in the electronics and software technologies sector across Wales, the only woman on stage was the presenter, Sarah Dickins.  Let’s see what happens at the 2014 awards, staged later this month.

The Welsh Government-commissioned ICT Steering Group made a long list of recommendations in its report on the teaching of ICT in schools, including a number on gender.  Implementing those recommendations should help with the publicising female role models, for example, within schools.

What can FE colleges do?

Belinda Parmar, CEO Lady Geek, is on a mission to change the way tech & gaming companies speak to women and ending the ‘pink it & shrink it’  approach. I’m sure that Belinda would be pleased to see that, with respect to FE colleges, pinking it and shrinking it is simply not done.  Young women are not patronised. They are indeed welcomed onto the whole range of courses that FE colleges offer on equal terms.

But Belinda goes on to explain: “It’s not about feminising technology, it’s about de-masculising it”.  This, I feel, is where there may be fruitful ground to explore.

Most colleges already bring in WISE to talk to inspire female students in STEM.  And there are a few women in development roles in colleges, too, such as Kate Ellaway.

Kate Ellaway, Systems Development Officer, Cardiff and Vale College

Kate Ellaway, Systems Development Officer, Cardiff and Vale College

Kate is a Systems Development Officer at Cardiff and Vale College.  Now aged 26, she laments the lack of advice and guidance she received when she was studying for her A levels and as a result, she decided that university was not for her.  As it turned out, her decision worked to her benefit.  Of her role at the college, she says: “I can’t express in words how much I love it. I like a challenge, and I love the variety of people I work with.  I really like being a girl who works in IT”.

Her message to girls thinking of a career in IT: “It’s not what you think it is. It’s better!”

Now, contrast Kate’s enthusiasm for the social side of her job in computing to the findings of the Cisco-sponsored research into: Why are girls still not attracted to ICT studies and careers? It found that girls more often associate the concept of ICT with hardware, algorithms and programming; whereas boys are more likely than girls to see ICT as socially-oriented.

What can colleges do to show a more social, more human – and more female – face to the world of computing and ICT?  Kate definitely seems to fit the bill as an ambassador. What else?  College hallways of billboards showing Sheryl Sandberg, Melissa Mayer, Ada Lovelace and co?

Do let us know your thoughts.  

With good ideas and a bit luck, the world famous Getty Images might think nothing of giving us a woman as the stock photo illustration for computer science in future…

Embed from Getty Images

About Claire Roberts

Claire.roberts [a]
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