British girls “logging off” from CS: What’s the real problem?

September 15, 2017 at 7:00 am 9 comments

The BBC reports (in the article linked below) that the “revolution in computing education has stalled.”  The data from England (including the Roehampton Report, discussed in this blog post) do back up that claim — see the quotes at the bottom.

In this post, I’m reflecting on the response from the British Computer Society. “We need to do more with the curriculum to show it’s not just a nerdy boys’ subject. We’ve got to show them it’s about real problems like climate change and improving healthcare.”  There are some interesting assumptions and warrants in these statements.  Do girls avoid CS because they think it’s a boys’ subject, or because it’s not about real problems?  How does the curriculum “show” that it is (or isn’t) a “nerdy boys’ subject”?  If the curriculum emphasized “real problems,” would it no longer be a “nerdy boys’ subject”?  Are these at all connected? Would making CS be like “climate change and improving healthcare” attract more female students?

First, I’d like to know if the girls choosing ICT over CS are actually saying that it’s because CS is “a nerdy boys’ subject,” and if the girls know anything about the curriculum in CS.  In our research, we found that high school students know very little about what actually happens in undergraduate CS, and undergraduate students in CS don’t even know what’s in their next semester’s classes. Changing the curriculum doesn’t do much good if the girls’ decisions are being made without knowing about the curriculum.  The former claim, that CS is perceived by girls as a “nerdy boys’ subject,” is well-supported in the literature.  But is that the main reason why the girls aren’t enrolling?

Do we know that this a curriculum issue at all? The evidence suggests that there are other likely reasons.

  • Maybe it’s not the curriculum’s “problem” focus, but the “learning objective” focus. Do the girls percieve that the point of the course is to become part of the Tech industry as a professional programmer?  Maybe girls are more interested in broadening their potential careers and not limiting their options to IT?  ICT can be used anywhere.  CS might be perceived as being about being a software developer.
  • Are the girls seeing mass media depictions of programming and deciding that it’s not for them?  A 2016 ICER paper by Colleen Lewis, Ruth Anderson, and Ken Yasuhara explored the reasons why students might not feel that they have a good “fit” with CS (see ACM paper link here).  But are those the reasons why women might not even try CS? Maybe they have had experiences with programming and decided that they didn’t fit? Or maybe the decided that syntax errors and unit tests are just tedious and boring?
  • Are the girls seeing mass media depictions of the Tech industry and deciding that they’d rather not be a Googler or work at Uber? They are probably hearing about things like the Damore memo at Google. Whether they think he’s right or not, maybe girls are saying that they just don’t want to bother.
  • Do the girls have more choices, and CS is simply less attractive in comparison?  It may be that girls know that CS is about solving real problems, but they’d rather solve real problems in law, medicine, or business.
  • Do the girls perceive that wages are not rising in the Tech industry?  Or do the girls perceive that they can make more money (perhaps with fewer negative connotations) as a lawyer, doctor, or businessperson?

I have heard from some colleagues in England that the real problem is a lack of teachers.  I can believe that having too few teachers does contribute to the problem, but that raises the same questions at another level.  Why don’t teachers teach computer science?  Is it because they don’t want to be in the position of being “vocational education,” simply preparing software developers?  Or are teachers deciding that they are dis-interested in software development, for themselves or for their students?  Or are the teachers looking at other areas of critical need for teachers and decide that CS is less attractive?

Bottom line is that we know too little, in the UK or in the US (see Generation CS), about what is influencing student and teacher decisions to pursue or to avoid classes in computing. The reality doesn’t matter here — people make decisions based on their perceptions.

In England, entries for the new computer science GCSE, which is supposed to replace ICT, rose modestly from 60,521 in 2016 to 64,159 this year. Girls accounted for just 20% of entries, and the proportion was a tiny bit lower than last year.

ICT entries fell from 84,120 to 73,099, which you would expect as the subject is disappearing from the national curriculum. But it had proved more attractive to girls. Even there, the proportion of female entries fell from 41% to 39%.

Combine the two subjects, and you find that the number studying either subject has fallen by over 7,000 in the past year. Back in 2015 more than 47,000 girls were getting some kind of computing qualification, and that has fallen to about 41,000 – just 30% of the total.

Source: Computer science: Girls logging off – BBC News

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , .

Learning Programming at Scale: Philip Guo’s research The challenge of retaining women in computing: The 2016 Taulbee Survey: Supplementary Report on Course-level Enrollment

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alfred Thompson  |  September 15, 2017 at 8:09 am

    It often feels like we (people following CS ed) too often make assumptions without evidence. This is yet another example of how we make assumptions based on biases, consciously or otherwise, about boy/men and girls/women and what their motivations and interests are.

    I think those of us who have been involved in diversity at all at the front lines (ie. the classroom) are more aware of this than the media looking from the outside or policy makers for whom the topic is more abstract. The question in my mind is how to we change that? More research is necessary in reality but far too many are willing to accept the perceptions as actual fact.

    Reply
  • 2. rademi  |  September 15, 2017 at 8:53 am

    Well… one perspective is that the computing science *market* is, to a large degree, a fashion industry. But, a market focused on a conflicting demographic.

    Put differently there are a lot of mean people out there, nowadays, on social media, and most parents are going to have spent a lot of time warning their kids of that (especially their girls, because of sexual predators and social biases – though almost routine catholic church “scandals” show that boys are also likely to be targeted).

    There have been some attempts to build computational market demographics which appeal to young girls, but those tend to quickly attract derision (as sexist or creepy or patronizing or whatever else). Parents tend to be protective about such thing and people in general tend to not like being the subject of derision.

    Anyways… a basic property of fashion industry (which seems to be the driving force behind popular involvement in any technology) is that it is driven by a sort of superficial newness, with attendant rapid changes (on a year over year time scale), probably with media based drivers.

    Reply
  • 3. Moti Ben-Ari  |  September 15, 2017 at 9:16 am

    To paraphrase Churchill: CS is the worst profession … except for all the others. Why law, medicine and business? The first two demand extensive study and extremely long hours, which require a deep commitment, not just a default of “not CS”. Business, too, requires a certain type of personality. As a curiosity, I just read an article about a blonde woman who dyed her hair brunette in order to get taken seriously in the business world. There are gender problems in other fields besides CS.

    As I’ve written before, for most women, the alternative the CS studies (or any other STEM profession) is to become a secretary, checkout clerk at a supermarket or saleswoman at a clothing store. And then there are complaints about a salary gap. Learning CS and becoming a software engineer is far more rewarding in every sense of the word, and it is worthwhile standing up to claims about nerds and lack of social relevance.

    Reply
    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  September 15, 2017 at 9:56 am

      As I’ve written before, for most women, the alternative to CS studies (or any other STEM profession) is to become a secretary, checkout clerk at a supermarket or saleswoman at a clothing store.

      I’m shocked at this claim, Moti, since it’s so demonstrably not true. Five minutes of searching found that over 30% of lawyers and doctors are female in the US. Perhaps it’s more true in Israel.

      In any case, what matters is not what you or I think. As I say in the post, it’s what the women who are not choosing CS (as students or as teachers) whose perception matters. That’s what needs to be studied to understand the real cause of low female engagement in CS in the UK or in the US.

      Reply
      • 5. Moti Ben-Ari  |  September 15, 2017 at 10:51 am

        Mark, the question is not the percentage of doctors who are female, but the percentage of females who are doctors. There are about 2-4 doctors per 1000 people, so even if only 30% are working people, maybe one percent of workers are doctors. On the other hand, the most common jobs are: retail salesperson, food service, cashiers, office workers. I don’t have the percentages, but they must add up to 30-50%. Of the top ten jobs, only registered nurses require advanced training and skills. The issue is not the 1-2% who become doctors and lawyers, but convincing (say) 20% of those destined to end up in low-status, low-paying jobs to study STEM professions in general and CS in particular.

        It is true that a large percentage of doctors and lawyers here are female, but it is interesting that there are gender issues even here. I checked the web page of the local hospital: 2 of 12 surgeons are female, 0 of 13 orthopedists are female, and similarly for gastroenterology and cardiology. Women over-represented in less “gung-ho” specialties like internal medicine, pediatrics and ophthalmology. Several years ago, I had to be treated in the hematology department where 4 out of the 6 doctors are female. They cured me of a very rare disease! 🙂

        Reply
        • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  September 17, 2017 at 10:57 am

          Perhaps it’s different in Israel. Most kids in the US don’t go to college, so if I see a student in undergraduate, the odds of them taking one of those most common jobs is low. So, an American student who gets into university is now comparing the jobs that require an undergraduate degree.

          Reply
  • 7. Anony Mouse  |  September 18, 2017 at 5:44 am

    Mark, your dismissal of Damore’s ‘screed’ suggests that you see the factors impacting uptake of computing to be entirely sociological, is that correct? What would persuade you that there might be neurological factors at play (albeit small in their effect)? Damore’s memo doesn’t say that girls can’t do computing, he is very careful to avoid saying that, but that the normal curves would make the average male very slightly more likely to take be good at it.

    Reply
  • 8. Anony Mouse  |  September 18, 2017 at 6:05 am

    I commented too soon, skipping through your site I came across the excellent disussion here: https://computinged.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/its-not-about-google-our-diversity-efforts-arent-working/

    Reply
  • […] have heard about some of these demographics before (see the Roehampton report and BBC coverage). Here in the US, we’re also talking about dramatically increasing funding (see blog post […]

    Reply

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