Computing & Gender: Lost in translation?

In industry and in exam classrooms, it’s clear that computing is currently dominated by men. Girls can achieve just as well as boys, so why do they rarely choose to aim to?

Originally published in Issue 2 of Hello World: The computing and digital making magazine for educators. Available free at helloworld.cc (Shared under Creative Commons CC BY NC SA).

Researchers Good, Estralls and Margolis tried to find out by running a three year study in three Los Angeles public schools including over 200 interviews and lesson observations.

The first was lack of opportunities. The obvious counter to this is to run classes and create opportunities, which many readers will already be working on.

Girls often do not perceive computing as being relevant to them. Presentations of computer science and those who do it in the media show arcane work driven by an interest in computers for their own sake. Educators can reframe computing as something that is a powerful tool in the wider world. Creating a context for lessons and tasks that goes beyond an interest in technology from the start will help students see the relevance of the subject.

Many girls also have negative experiences when they do engage with computing classes. Boys often have lots of previous experience and see classes as a fun way of practicing familiar content. In observations in the study boys regularly took over practical tasks and dominated discussions. Boys also reported how most of their learning and confidence came from peer networks that girls said they weren’t part of. Creating an inclusive classroom culture is paramount. Using techniques to ensure all students are actively contributing such as giving roles and carefully structuring discussions can help. Choosing widely relevant contexts beyond the computer (as above) can also put students on a more even level in terms of prior experiences.

Focusing on getting started with the mechanics of programming and syntax can miss higher order thinking opportunities and make students underestimate the academic value of computing. Girls often won’t choose to engage with a subject unless they see it as a worthwhile qualification. Computing is often thought of as a niche subject for those with a special interest, rather than part of a pallette of academic subjects that students with broader interests would choose. This can be avoided by making sure to weave demands for higher order thinking in with the necessary early stages of learning the mechanics of programming. Highlighting the potential of computing as an academic subject for aspiring generalists as well as computer science specialists from the start can help too.

The forces that have made computing a male dominated area are complex. This research shines a light on how some of them work and how teachers can begin to bring more gender diversity to the subject in schools.

The original article is available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286359207_Lost_in_Translation_Gender_and_High_School_Computer_Science

 

Photo Credit: wuestenigel Flickr via Compfight cc

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