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Why are girls being put off studying computer sciences?

schedule 29th September 2017 by Emma Brook in Virtual College Last updated on 24th April 2018

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As technology becomes an ever more integral aspect of 21st century life, the role of computer sciences in the modern jobs market is taking on increasing importance.

British government estimates suggest that as many as 90 per cent of all future jobs will require digital skills, while it has also been forecast that the UK will need more than 1.2 million new technically and digitally skilled people by 2022 to satisfy future needs. However, the prospect of achieving these goals continues to be undermined by an ongoing failure to get girls involved in computer science courses.

Although schools and policymakers have been making efforts in recent years to engage more young women with IT, the most recent round of GCSE and A-level results have indicated that, so far, the progress that was hoped for remains frustratingly out of reach.

Exam figures show a troubling trend

In fact, figures showing the number of entries for GCSE and A-level computer science courses seem to suggest that the UK may have taken a step back in terms of female representation over the last year.

In England, girls accounted for only 20 per cent of the 64,159 entries for the new computer science GCSE, a proportion that was actually marginally lower than last year. For the older ICT GCSE course the proportion of female entries fell from 41 per cent to 39 per cent.

When the two subjects are combined, the number studying either subject fell by more than 7,000 in the past year. When considered alongside A-level figures showing that a mere 9.8 per cent of those completing a computing course were girls, it paints a dispiriting picture for educators, parents and employers.

Why is this happening?

There are a number of reasons why UK computer science teaching is facing difficulties at the moment, some of which are gender-neutral. The British Computing Society (BCS) notes that many teachers do not have the specialist knowledge to teach the new, more rigorous computer science GCSE, which means that many schools are not even able to offer it as an option.

However, in female representation terms, the far greater issue is that many young women feel put off studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) based subjects due to negative stereotypes, a poor understanding of the career options they create and a general sense that computer science is not for women.

A survey of more than 8,500 young people, parents and teachers from Accenture revealed that 32 per cent of young people think more boys choose STEM subjects than girls because they match ‘male’ careers or jobs, while 54 per cent of teachers claim to have seen girls dropping STEM subjects at school due to pressure from parents.

There is also evidence that these perceptions become more deep-rooted over time, with 50 per cent of girls between the ages of seven and 11 describing computer science as fun and enjoyable, compared to only 36 per cent in the 11 to 14 age group who said the same.

What can be done to remedy the problem?

Given how important it is for the UK to start producing more skilled workers with IT and computer science expertise, it is clear that steps need to be taken to break down some of the negative associations that are preventing girls from exploring potential interests in this field.

The British Computing Society believes that the key is raising awareness of the diverse range of different lines of work that computing can lead to – not simply office or lab-based work, but exciting, impactful careers combating climate change and improving healthcare.

Educational studies have also shown the benefit of giving young girls the opportunity to take part in enjoyable, inspiring STEM-related activities, whether that means getting involved in fun classroom exercises and experiments, taking trips to museums or spending time with female role models who can share their passion and enthusiasm for their work.

By taking steps such as these, it will be hoped that the recent dip in computer science participation among girls can be looked back on as a blip, rather than the start of an even more troubling decline.

Summary: The latest round of examination statistics have shown that British girls are still reluctant to take part in computer science courses.

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Emma Brook - Virtual College

Author: Emma Brook

Emma works in the marketing design team at Virtual College and works on a variety of print and digital design projects. In her spare time she enjoys going to gigs and the theatre.

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