The challenges around gender and computing are well documented, with women underrepresented in technology jobs and in classes studying for computing qualifications.
Originally published in Issue 3 of Hello World: The computing and digital making magazine for educators. Available free at helloworld.cc (Shared under Creative Commons CC BY NC SA).
Lots of people are trying different approaches to addressing this problem. Dr. Claire Quigley from Glasgow Science Centre worked with CoderDojo Scotland and Digital Scotland to look at some of these approaches and see how well they work.
Quigley looked at data from 36 CoderDojos in Scotland. These informal programming events had tried several initiatives to try to encourage more girls to get involved in their activities. Some tried ‘girls only’ introductory sessions as a way to create an environment that girls might find more attractive to get involved in.
The girls only events did attract girls to attend and have a go at programming, providing an important introduction to the activity. However, this did not translate into more girls going from these introductory sessions to attending the mixed sessions they were meant to graduate to. Quigley suggests that this may be because an introductory session is not enough to overcome the cultural trope that boys are more suited to technical subjects than boys. It could also reinforce the ideas that girls do not usually code. There was some evidence from a Dojo that organised a sequence of girls only sessions that this longer experience gives girls a chance to develop attitudes which move past these stereotypes. The dataset for this was small, but 40% of girls from this initiative went on to attend mixed CoderDojo activities.
The work on descriptions showed that how an activity is presented may have a large effect on the proportion of girls. Descriptions emphasising creativity, familiarity and with specific descriptions of what young people would do attracted more girls. Those emphasising competition, teamworking, the need to publicly showcase your work or involving lots of jargon were much less successful in attracting girls. The effect of descriptions that are attractive to girls was much stronger than the effect of the offputting descriptions, so it’s important to not just avoid things like jargon, but to actively describe activities in a way girls want to get involved with.
These kinds of findings are closely linked to cultural contexts, so the effects in other parts of the world will likely differ. However, they offer both an interesting set of recommendations for trying to attract more girls to informal computing activities, and a reminder that it is always worth collecting and looking at data to see how initiatives educators implement are working as they intended.
You can read the full report here.