There’s a big focus in the UK on getting girls programming: the ‘industry’ is keen to attract talented workers from a wider pool; the BBC are commissioning content specifically aimed at getting teenage girls programming.  The focus seems to be on encouraging secondary-school-age girls to choose the right options to study, but I think the problem is deeper and earlier than that, and something that happened last week made me think I need to do something about it – and urgently.

I was in school doing my usual ‘enthusiastic computing helper’ bit with Year 6 (11-year-olds, about to leave for secondary school).  It was the last session of term, so we took apart some computers (my first laptop, and a redundant desktop), handed round the parts, and talked about the different bits of computers.  We also discussed the enormous range of tech careers available, how flexible many of them are, and how important it is to get the right people doing them – from project management to programming to chip design (nobody had heard of ARM, one of the UK’s biggest tech companies…).  Someone asked if they could put the computers back together, and of course I knew that would mean stripped screw heads, stuff not being in quite the right place, and a few rattles even once everyone had finished, but the opportunity to get hands-on was too good to miss, so I said yes.

To cut a long story short, they dived in, continued taking things to bits (no surprise there!) and slowly lost interest.  The group that was left by the end consisted of one boy and four or five girls, all of whom were interested in how to put it back together, what went where, what the bits did, and how you find out more about this sort of thing – fab, some engagement and genuine interest in what they were doing (this was instead of being outside in the sun at playtime).  Then it happened: the one boy said, “How come you are all still here?  This isn’t a very girlie thing to do, is it?”

Just to be clear: you are not allowed to give children a clip around the earhole, so I didn’t.  However, (after screaming inside my head) I did explain to him that this wasn’t a very realistic outlook (not in those words).  I did explain that girls make just as good programmers/PM’s/chip designers as boys.  I did mention that at work, the person whose skills I respect the most is a woman (who is now Director of Utilities at a major IT consultancy).  And so on.  I think he got the message – but will it sink in?  Will his attitude change?  I don’t know…

Zaphod Beeblebrox’s expression of confusion came to mind (sorry, this isn’t intended to be a Douglas Adams blog): “Who, what, when, and where? And then whither, whether, whence, and wherefore to follow, and one big side order of why?”

I think we may have a cultural problem here, and I don’t think it’s a problem with the school: I have only ever seen evidence of the staff treating children in respect of their behaviour and capabilities, and have seen no evidence of reinforcing gender stereotypes, in fact quite the reverse, gender stereotypes are consistently challenged.  So where is this attitude coming from?  ‘Society’ is the easy answer: increasingly pink toys and other products (this seems to have intensified even since my children were 11); Daily Mail articles about the new women in the Cabinet that just talk about clothes and nothing about policy; media focus on glamour and looks rather than achievement.  But let’s step back a moment: the Daily Mail only writes that stuff because people will buy it; if pink’s increasing (I mean, honestly, a pink Lego hairdressing salon?), then it’s because people buy it.  So who buys for children?  Parents and grandparents, mostly.  If an 11-year-old has such stereotypical views, it can only be because of the environment in which he lives, which means school life, home life, and peers.  I can have some influence on the first, but not the second or third…

So what to do in my little bubble of school computing?  Well to start with, I’m going to discuss this with the Computing Subject Leader, because we need to make sure that, by the time children get to Year 6, every child expects girls to be using computers just as much as boys, which might mean: beefing up the computing elements further down the school; celebrating computing ability and achievement publicly, no matter who is succeeding; ensuring that the planned activities offer attraction to the whole class.   To date, computing hasn’t had a particularly high profile in the school (and I guess that’s usual in primary schools), but it’s clearly an area where gender stereotyping is strong, so it’s perhaps an issue to address.

The problem is the usual one in schools – time and resources.  If ‘the industry’ wants more women in computing, then it would do well to direct more resources towards primary schools, because the root issue starts early, and by secondary school it’s too late.  At the moment, pretty much all the resource for primary schools ends up with volunteers, and there’s a limited supply of us.  Thinking hats on…

Footnote 1

While moving towards an environment where it’s assumed that everyone does computing, we’ll need to recognise that boys and girls approach things differently: it was noticeable that, when they could choose the type of game to create, there were many more swords and zombies in the boys’ games than the girls’, but that just means that I had people designing games that would appeal to the target audience at the top of this article.  A good place to start, I think.

Footnote 2

Someone told me the other day that programming is the modern equivalent of knitting – after all, a knitting pattern is just a code for which colours and which stitch to use where.  I wonder if there’s mileage in promoting it as the 21st century’s answer to knitting… or would we put the boys off…?