Why don’t girls choose Computing?

Gender imbalance in the IT industry has been in the press a lot recently.  This article in Computer Weekly nicely sums up the industry position – why is IT less attractive to women?  Wendy Grossman in the Guardian questions why women don’t seem to want to go into the industry, citing the example of Marissa Meyer as a role model that women don’t seem to be following.  Maggie Philbin, also in the Guardian raises the issue of gender stereotyping in games etc. and also the perception that older women are not users of technology.

From the age of 18 – 30 I spent my life working in the IT industry – with 3 years out for university.  Now as an IT / Computing teacher the gender imbalance bothers me.  We are offering GCSE Computing next year for the first time and have no girls doing it.  Does it matter if they are choosing subjects they enjoy and are good at? No.  Does it matter if they are not even considering a career choice they might find interesting and well paid? YES!

If course a choice at 14 does not limit career choices but it might make things a little more difficult.  I think role models are important.  Not just the high flying Marissa Mayer type of role models (although knowing she was profiled in Vogue might help some – but if she didn’t conform to society’s stereotype of what a successful woman “should” look like would Vogue have been interested?  Just saying…).  No I think girls need more immediate role models as well.  Thinking back to 6th form, I only switched to do geeky double-maths A-level when I saw there were girls doing it (I didn’t have the option of computing).  I realise how utterly SHALLOW that sounds but that is how my 16 year old self felt.

Personally I think there is a perception that the IT industry is male dominated, that computer science is a male choice and that this puts girls off choosing this as an option.  If you don’t study computing early on, you can still take it later.  However most of us only have one shot at an undergraduate degree and if you haven’t done Computer Science (as Mayer did) your level of entry into the IT industry will be that bit lower.  You can of course self-study at a later date but once life intervenes in the form of families and paying for mortgages, most just don’t have the time.

We need to get girls interested in Computer Science at a much earlier age – so they have the best chance of entering a potentially fantastic profession at the highest level they can.  Emma Mulqueeny of Rewired State has said the year 8 is too late, and I think she’s right.  Primary schools need to engage girls at a younger age in computing (actually all children).  In secondary schools we need to do more to attract younger girls to computer clubs (without making them pink).

I asked a class of year 10 students how they perceived the IT industry and computing as a career and all said male-dominated.  When asked why, the names Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg were mentioned – they’d never heard of Marissa Mayer.  It’s a vicious circle at the moment.  Girls are less likely to choose Computer Science degrees, so they are less likely to found high-profile startups and therefore be the kind of high-profile individuals that have books and films made about them.  Marissa Meyer, by completing both her undergraduate degree and her Masters, and not dropping out to move to California and found a company, is not the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Thinking back on my career, oddly I don’t ever recall there being a problem with the gender imbalance – at the time.  But with the benefit of hindsight and certainly the wisdom of age, it was definitely there.  Never enough to put me off the job but it offered certain discomfort.

At 18 I found myself in IBM’s Basingstoke offices as a pre-university employee.  There were women in the office so I didn’t really notice any gender issues.  But these women were admin assistants and at that age, I didn’t perceive the difference.  Every day, older male colleagues would comment on my clothes and the length of skirts I wore but somehow I normalised that.

Post University and on the IBM Graduate Trainee programme there was a fairly equal spread of men and women but as soon as I started out on client sites the differences became clear.  I always felt conscious of the age issue more than anything. Going out on a client site as a “consultant” at the age of 23 is frankly laughable.  I always felt I had something to prove.  One week spent at a big London bank with a suspicious team of men was awkward.  I invited myself down to the pub with them on Friday lunchtime and drank 2 pints of Guinness.  After that I was an accepted part of the team.  Sadly it wasn’t my work that sealed the deal but those two pints of Guinness. I was “one of the boys”.  I normalised that too.

Much later I was sent to Tokyo with a team of (male) clients to advise on a product.  During the week we were there, they “forgot” to invite me out for a meal in the evening with them twice.  Maybe it was nothing to do with gender.  Perhaps they just didn’t like me… Anyway, in a hotel with no restaurant and no room service it was rude.

I spent several years as one of the weekly commuters staying Monday – Thursday in a hotel somewhere in the UK.  We’d be working as part of teams with clients so there were a number of women, but the consultancy teams were very male dominated.  Of the women who did work on these teams, none, bar one, had children.  All the men were fathers.  They were quite happy to spend 4 nights away from their families every week, for years.  The one mother who did this was questioned CONSTANTLY about her motives, her suitability as a parent, her sense of responsibility etc.  At the time I didn’t have children.  I do now and can’t imagine choosing that lifestyle – but that’s a choice I make as a parent not as a mother.  Of course this isn’t an issue that applies only to the IT industry – female explorers are routinely asked how they can go on dangerous expeditions and risk leaving their children motherless.

There are a lot of studies out about the gender imbalance and I intend to look into this in more detail over the next few months.

It all takes TIME!

Today I had the pleasure of taking 16 year 7 and 8 pupils to Technocamps at the University of Glamorgan.  It was Activities Day at school so these pupils had chosen a day of Kodu games programming over white water rafting, Oakwood or a trip to the cinema.  Yes it was 16 boys but I’ll deal with the gender issue in another post.

Previously I’ve been concerned that the games that come with Kodu act as a distraction for pupils who will just play games rather than code, but not today.  They were totally absorbed and enjoyed every minute.  After lunch they couldn’t wait to get back and work on their games some more.  Some designed outlandish worlds, some added detailed coding to characters, some thought hard about interactivity but they all had a lot of fun.  They also had 4 hours of coding.

In a school environment we can’t normally provide this.  One or even 2 hours a week means that pupils have to restart everything afresh (including their brain cells).  As Malcolm Gladwell explains in Outliers, time is essential for developing talent.  Now I don’t suggest these kids need 10,000 hours on Kodu and if they spent all their waking hours doing this instead of going to theme parks, the cinema or just playing outside they may well be poorer for it.  But time is needed.

Most of them went home saying they were going to download Kodu and carry on later.  Some are going to come along to a lunchtime club tomorrow.  But for me, it was really nice to be able to give them that time to play around, without learning objectives (but to REALLY see that they were learning – the Technocamps team know how to put on a good workshop!).

Cardiff Raspberry Jam

Since the CAS Conference in Birmingham in June I’ve been thinking about holding a Raspberry Jam in the local area.  I had permission to host it in school once evening but it was getting awkward to find an evening that was suitable before the end of term.  Two weeks ago I found out about the Cardiff Science Festival and had the mad idea of holding a Raspberry Jam to coincide.  By coincidence Dr Tom Crick (Computing at School) and Laura Roberts (Technocamps) had a room booked that they could no longer use.

Two weeks later I find myself standing in front of 45 people at the Urdd in Cardiff Bay with no real idea of what their expectations are of this event.  I’d had a few moments of wondering what on earth I was thinking of.  My son Sam has a Raspberry Pi but I’d not really played around with it.  It’s his and I want him to find his own way.  Only a few days beforehand I realised that playing the Raspberry pi through the VGA projector was going to be awkward (Amazon sell an HDMI to VGA converter cable for £4 which proved to be useless – HDMI is a digital format and VGA is analog.  Of course I know that NOW and NOW it seems obvious).  So we tried out the RCA port with a composite cable and that worked.  Looked shocking but it worked!  Thankfully on the day Gareth Edmondson (who couldn’t attend) came to the rescue with his Kanex, kindly transported by Edward O’Reagan. It worked a treat.

Our first demonstration came from Dave Christian, a pHd student and software developer who demonstrated the graphics processing power of the Raspberry Pi.  Apologies for the poor quality of the video, I was standing in the corner of the room with my Flip camera.  We had the lights down as Dave’s Mandelbrot sets appeared quite dark on the screen.

Thankfully Dave has published his code on GitHub! Next time I’ll plan video a little more!  You can see that while Dave was talking high graphics processing, a 4-year old girl is totally engrossed in a Scratch game on another Raspberry Pi set up for further demonstrations.

a 4 year old on the Raspberry Pi

Dr Tom Crick then gave us his promotion of Computing at School and explained how he saw the Raspberry Pi fitting in with with this.  A reminiscent discussion about the BBC Micro followed.  Many of the attendees were parents concerned about the state of ICT education. With some saying their child had dropped ICT at school as it wasn’t relevant.  To all those this resonates with, please join Computing at School and get involved. I outlined the 4 GCSE’s that are now available in Computing, although sadly these have come too late for some of the students attending the Raspberry Jam.  We also mentioned Young Rewired State which is a fantastic summer opportunity culminating in the Festival of Code on 10-12th August.  What I should also have talked about are the Technocamps Bootcamps taking place this summer – they have iOS App development, and Kodu game design in Swansea.  Both are aimed at 16-19 year olds but they will accept slightly younger students who are keen.  They also have the “build your own internet” workshops in Bangor for 11-15 year olds.

Sam Sherratt, age 10, then told us what his plans are for his Raspberry Pi.  He talked about the camera that Eben Upton (the developer of the Raspberry Pi) announced at the Raspberry Jam on Cambridge the previous day and his plans for programming LEDs on the pins to flash.  It was great to hear someone from the target audience of the Raspberry Pi talk so confidently about this!  Sadly, I didn’t video Sam – but as his mum I was too busy feeling very proud of him! (Thanks to Tom Crick for the photo).

Finally Edward O’Reagan talked about the Pi User Group he has set up in Swansea, exhorting us to do the same!  Video to follow.  Edward also demonstrated running Quake 3 on the Raspberry Pi – further instructions on his website which is also an excellent Pi resource.

The real audience for the Raspberry Pi?!

At the end of the event we had a surprise visit from Cardiff Hackspace who brought along a Raspberry Pi case they had 3D printed.  Next time we hope they come along and present about their Raspberry Pi door entry system.

It’s no coincidence that teaching computing is a great idea!

The “coincidence” that two of my Twitter circle know each other (I’ve known one for years from home & met the other at the CAS Wales Technocamps Conference) started me thinking about Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Douglas Adams’ book has coincidence at its core & led a friend & I to track coincidences for a year at uni (I know, the innocence of youth).  Of course the fact that my friends know each other isn’t a coincidence really. They’re both teachers in the same county with a strong interest in literacy. But as I’m 150 miles away and know them for different reasons it feels like one.

Anyway, subsequent Googling brought me this quote from the book which sums up exactly WHY we must teach computational thinking:

“What really is the point of trying to teach anything to anybody?” This question seemed to provoke a murmur of sympathetic approval from up and down the table. Richard continued, “What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that’s really the essence of programming. By the time you’ve sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you’ve learned something about it yourself.

Getting a student to teach a peer is something we use a lot in teaching for exactly those reasons. So why not extend this to computing? If you have a complex idea you need students to understand, get them to break it down as if they were going to program a computer to do that.

I like coincidences, mainly because I like to break them down into little steps and I like the subconscious tricks our brain plays on us. Of course I’ve also learned a bit about my own ability to jump to conclusions.