I recently attended a 3 day cs4hs workshop at Sydney University. We had a couple of  interesting and passionate discussions about getting more girls into programming and computing courses. It got me thinking, "How can we get more girls in the HSC course Software Design and Development?"

Females were very well represented at the cs4hs event and all were interested and passionate about computing and programming. It was (very well) organised by a female PhD candidate (@nickyringland), there were a number of excellent female presenters and OVER half the teachers participating were female. So there are talented females engaged in and teaching computing courses, but why are so few girls at school and university choosing them? Why are females so under represented? How do we change this?
PictureImage shown at cs4hs about female computing graduates
We heard about the poor number of university female computing graduates in Australia compared to other countries, ie Iran has 4 times the percentage of female graduates (see graph). If females are doing computing courses successfully in other countries then they must be able to code! We also heard that the number of females at Google in Australia was very low, but this reflects the poor number of females coming out of university computing courses. We also know only about 6% of students doing the NSW HSC Software Design and Development course are female.

So what are the issues that are stopping girls from learning to design and code computer programs? Girls use computers and play games, "Forty-five percent of all game players are women" (http://www.theesa.com/facts/). So what is stopping them from learning to code them rather than just being users?

Some of the issues that were raised in the discussions about why girls aren't doing computing courses and learning to code include:
  • boys use computers differently and will have a go (and take over), whereas girls tend to sit back and think more
  • the image of programmers is poor, students think "dorky, social inept boys with pimples who work in dark rooms", this is far from what most programmers do, based on what I heard the Google employees talk about at cs4hs
  • parents/teachers discourage girls from learning computers, "girls can't code" because of a misconception of capabiliities and prospects
  • there are few female computing role models, you only ever hear about males in the computing industry

So what can we do?
There is no single strategy that will make a difference, everyone needs to play their part to make a change. Some possible strategies include:
  • providing parents/society with better information showing that girls can design and write code and that there are interesting and engaging programming jobs. Parents are important as they are usually the ones to make/influence subject selections in schools
  • a need for positive female programming models in schools and the media
  • more programs to pro-actively support and encourage girls into computing, some examples include
    Girls Programming Network, a program run out of the School of IT and Sydney University to support and mentor girls interested in programming
    Digigirls, a TAFE program for girls run by North Sydney Institute of TAFE
    - NCSS (National Computer Science School) Summer School, an intensive 10 day course of computer programming and website development
    NCSS challenge, a 5 week, online course to learn the Python programming language

The biggest long term opportunity is the new National Digital Technology Curriculum, that in draft proposal talks about ALL students learning programming concepts. This will force all students to be introduced to computational thinking and the design and programming of code through visual languages like Scratch. This bring up a whole new problem of teachers having the skills and confidence to do this...

What other programs are out there to encourage girls into computers and programming?

What other strategies are people using in schools to successfully engage girls into computers and programming?

I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts.



08/07/2013 11:15pm

Give primary teachers opportunity to attend summer school and enable them to teach basic programming - access to TPL as is afforded to others. Allows basics to be taught and could change subject choice.

09/07/2013 11:04am

Yes Jackie, primary teachers need to have access to appropriate professional development. The PD to learn these skills may need to be scalable to cover all Primary teachers.
A starting point may be the basic level of the NCSS challenge.

08/07/2013 11:51pm

Some of the other things I wanted to have more of a discussion about were whether we should be making an effort to make computing harder. If the subject were presented as an academically rigorous facet of applied maths, what sort of an effect will that have on students? Especially on, say, high achieving girls, who already are confident in their maths ability? Or am I opening up another can of worms here?

There are a few (mostly American) resources I know that might be worth a look: http://www.ncwit.org/ and http://www.iwitts.org/proven-practices to name a few.

I also recommend the book Unlocking the Clubhouse, Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. I'm happy to lend my copy of the book to anyone Sydney-based, and the academic papers are very readable, too: http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/project/gendergap/www/papers/

09/07/2013 11:36am

Thanks for you thoughts Nicky.

It is an interesting thought about making the computing courses harder. In the future student may come through with more knowledge and skills that this could be an option. I feel that the current HSC Software Design and Development syllabus is rigorous enough to engage the higher achieving students. It just needs to be sold to these students as an option and then taught in that way.... The bigger challenge is to engage the "average" female student to learn to program and take these courses. I think many of these student think these courses are already too hard (or boring)!

The links you gave are great, I particularly liked the resources on the National Centre for Women and IT http://www.ncwit.org/resources?field_audiences_tid%5B%5D=1

Keep up the great work in encouraging the next generation of female programmers.

Sujatha G.
15/07/2013 3:48pm

Good post, Phillip. There is no single solution as you say. In my experience with teaching girls, there also appears to be somewhat of a disconnect between what many students expect to be able to do within one or two sessions (i.e. making complex games) and what is realistically achievable. I am hopeful that the Digital Technologies syllabus will make computational thinking and coding more prominent across the board. Given the gender perceptions, I believe girls coding will become more of the norm when it is introduced at a young age and is part of the overall learning landscape, rather than a specialised and optional class in the teenage years.

22/07/2013 12:54am

Thanks for the comment Sujatha.

Yes, syllabus change is needed so that everyone is given an equal opportunity to learn computational thinking.

Let's hope it happens.


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