Debbie Forster, UK managing director of education technology charity Apps for Good and former headteacher, believes getting students involved in practical projects is essential to making computing more accessible for girls, as well as providing valuable hands-on experience.
She explains how tackling common stereotypes during the school years is the key to bringing more women into the IT industry.
As we adapt to the challenges of the digital age, it was only a matter of time before computing was introduced into the school curriculum. But with research by the Women into Science, Engineering and Construction (Wise) campaign revealing that women only accounting for 18% of students taking computer science degrees in 2010/11, and making up just 15% of the IT workforce, the real challenge is how to truly engage girls with the subject.
Research from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has revealed a significant disparity in the demand and supply of IT professionals. And with the UK Council of Professors and Heads of computing projecting a 15% rise in the demand for IT workers over the next eight years, it is clear that new initiatives are needed to increase the take-up of IT-related jobs.
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This is especially true among women, who are largely underrepresented in the IT industry – a worrying lack of diversity in the field. Increasingly, it is being recognised that to entice women into the world of technology, the changes need to start at school, before students make important subject choices that will ultimately shape their career path.
Geeky and male
According to research by the University of Washington, “intelligent, geeky, socially inept and male” are the characteristics commonly associated with computer scientists. It is exactly these stereotypes that need to be addressed if we want to achieve gender equality in the IT industry.
The task for schools is to make computing classes fun and appealing to girls and boys alike, to debunk the myth that IT is dominated by men in dark rooms who spend all day coding.
Pupils should be aware that the technology industry is not limited to coding, and that there are a range of opportunities in areas such as marketing, business and design.
Getting students involved in practical, hands-on activities, such as designing app prototypes or in schemes such as Young Rewired State, gives students the chance to explore all of the aspects of technology, including market research, assessing technical feasibility and determining business models.
This shows students that technology involves creativity, collaboration and problem-solving and exposes them to how the technology industry works.
Helping girls find enjoyment in IT is no doubt a huge step in the right direction
Inspiring girls about the power of technology is important too. But it’s not about “pink-ifying” technology, as that only reinforces stereotypes. Instead, it’s important for students to focus on their own passions and interests and understand how technology can be a part of this.
In Apps for Good, our students choose a problem that matters to them and then build an app to solve it; for some female students, that problem relates to fashion, while for others it’s politics.
Helping girls find enjoyment in IT is no doubt a huge step in the right direction. But schools need to ensure that girls who want to pursue computing studies also feel that they can. I have come across many girls who are quick to dismiss careers in IT as they feel that, as females, it is not something they will have a natural flair for.
Many young women may now have heard that the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, was a Victorian mother of three, but are they being exposed to the enterprising women in today’s UK technology industry? The absence of visible current female role models is still one of the major barriers to women entering IT, according to a report by Catalyst. This is something we are conscious of at Apps for Good.
Among our experts, the technology professionals who mentor our students, 25% are female – almost double the industry make-up of 15% - and one-third of expert sessions held so far this year have been given by women.
The world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, was a Victorian mother of three
In 2014/15 we will focus more of our recruitment efforts on female experts, as are organisations such as Teen Tech and London Tech Advocates. These are steps in the right direction, but all of us in the media, education sector and industry need to do even more to give greater visibility to the women that are thriving in technology.
There's a place for everyone in ICT
One of the students, Enya, who won an Apps for Good Award last year for developing an app to help young people find jobs in their local community said "There's a place for everyone in ICT". Last year, 52% of Apps for Good participants were female.
At the Apps for Good Awards, our annual competition, 75% of finalists and 66% of winners were female, indicating that if we can open the door, girls won’t just come through – they will excel. It is a promising start, but there is still more to do if we are to inspire a generation of women to have the confidence to create, innovate and lead within the field of technology.