GUEST BLOG: Bella Grimsey, a student in her second year of computer science A-Level, explains the challenges and pressures of being a lone female in class, and why the tech syllabus needs to change to attract more women.
I have never been fascinated by computers. When I was seven, I got a Raspberry Pi for Christmas, but it lay untouched for years. Despite the free biscuits, the coding club in my primary school never enticed me. Not until secondary school did I begin to see the attraction of computer science. However, the lessons in Year 7 (aged 11) didn’t excite me. The block-based coding platform Scratch was plonked in front of us for an hour, but it felt directionless to me. I would dread computer science lessons because it meant an hour of sitting in silence staring at a screen waiting for the next seemingly pointless task on Scratch to be set by the teacher. Others seemed to like it. But not me.
Computer Science GCSE
When a new computer science teacher arrived with a new approach, I was thankful for no longer having to deal with Scratch. So, when it came to choosing my GCSEs, I considered computer science once again. I knew that technology would define the course of my future and learning how to code seemed like a fun and useful skill. Yet, I was not ready to fully commit for fear of choosing a GCSE which I was rubbish at. Instead, I decided to teach myself computer science GCSE – that way, I could always opt-out. Arming myself with a textbook and an endless supply of YouTube videos, I embarked on the challenge.
I found it really exciting and enriching – delving into far more detail than the course required and using my Python skills to create fun programmes. However, what frustrated me was that the GCSE did not require any coding skills at all. The exam used pseudocode – meaning that students taking the GCSE didn’t need to actually know a programming language. The GCSE was essentially a memory challenge.
Then came another decision – my A-Level subjects. Should I take computer science A-Level? The freedom in which I learnt computer science at GCSE meant that I had developed a deep interest in it, and taking the subject for A-Level felt like an obvious step. Turning up to my first lesson, I was nervous that I was the only girl in the class. Around me sat seven boys and a male teacher. I automatically assumed that everyone in the class would be better than me, with years of coding experience. However, as time went on, I realised that being a boy doesn’t give people a natural advantage in computing subjects, and I performed just as well as the other students in the class.
But the syllabus that we were learning was not interesting. I would moan to the boys about the topics we covered, such as ‘Programming language classification’ and ‘Internal computer hardware’, but they’d look at me blankly and say that they were enjoying the class. Was it just me? Compared to my geography A-Level where I could see a direct path to the real-world application of the concepts we were learning – such as tackling climate change – I found it hard to link the topics in computer science to how I could solve real-world problems. I wanted to have the coding skills required to work in tech, but the classes just felt too theoretical.
Fear of tech
I think that a lack of women in the tech industry is partly down to a fear of girls jumping into a topic which they haven’t had experience with. Should they take a gamble with their subjects, or just play it safe? For those in my computer science class, gaming has inspired them to learn more about computing – so they can choose the best processor and RAM for their computers. Computer science feels a natural step for them; going into tech does not make them quirky or different. However, for girls, taking computer science is something that makes them stand out.
Also, representation is paramount to encouraging girls into computer science, and in making them stay. For me at least, it feels like the subject is geared towards men. Textbooks, class examples and case studies all seem to default to ‘he’. This makes me feel different – I’m not just a computer scientist, I’m a female computer scientist. This just adds another hurdle for girls to jump, when in fact we should be making the path as smooth as possible.
However, I feel that there is a positive move towards encouraging girls into computer science. The younger girls in my school seem much more enthusiastic about taking computer science because they have a female teacher, making them feel that a step into computer science is natural – their teacher did it after all.
Choosing a degree
I’m now faced with another decision – what degree do I apply for? Before I had started A-Level, I was enthusiastic about doing a computer science degree. I envisioned myself as a ‘girl in STEM’. But now, I can’t see myself sitting through three years of learning about the hardware of computers and the concepts behind computational thinking. Perhaps if I had not taken the A-Level, a computer science degree would be more enticing. I know that a degree will be different to the A-Level – with a more practical side through coding, but I have chosen to study Geography instead. Using the skills that I have learnt in computer science, I look forward to programming Geographical Information Systems and understanding the importance that applications of technology will have in fighting real-world problems.
Encouraging more women into tech
I believe that I am the only girl in my computer science class because girls are less exposed to computer science from an early age, and there are fewer role models in the field. As more women enter the tech industry, there will be more female computer science teachers inspiring girls before they choose their GCSEs. Also, instead of dragging and dropping in Scratch, learning to actually code in years 7-to-9 would encourage a new age of computer scientists who can apply their coding skills to solve genuinely useful problems, and lessen the divide between girls and boys having different levels of exposure to tech.
Encouraging women into tech should not be a one-off choice where a 7-year-old decides to ignore a Raspberry Pi and never chooses computer science again. Paths into tech should be accessible from all angles for women so that they can become part of the industry regardless of the degree that they chose.