Girls and computer science: it’s society not biology that’s the problem, or maybe not

gpnWe need to change the way girls view technical subjects, or girls will become committed consumers, rather than controllers, of the technology that’s shaping our lives.

For a long time I’ve had a mission to involve more girls in my school programming groups. For the last eight weeks that mission has become pointed as we have trialed a girls-only programming group at the local High School. Gaining traction has been hard-going.

We started a general lunchtime programming group this year as my elder son started in High School. We pretty quickly attracted a solid group of over 20 kids drawn from Years 7 and 8 largely through word-of-mouth. We’ve lost a couple of kids over the months, but have gained several more. But we only had one girl show up. It was pretty apparent that girls were being put off by walking into a sea of boys; and so we decided to try a girls-only group to get girls up-to-speed in a more overtly welcoming environment.

After eight weeks of much more intensive marketing, we have 5 girls involved. And each week we sit down and wrack our brains trying to think of ways of increasing that number.

Let’s start with what this isn’t. It isn’t that boys are intrinsically better at programming: Some of the better programmers I’ve had in my Primary School groups have been girls. Nor is it that boys are better at maths – for which see the excellent slide show below. It’s also not that girls are put off once they try programming – we’re using Scratch and the girls who do try it are having a good time.

No, the core of the problem seems to be social. Programming, no matter how presented, is not seen as a cool thing for girls to do; and as you hit High School doing the cool thing is very important. Sadly, if that analysis is correct, it’s going to be very tough to change such a deep-seated perception. But even as I write this I’m wincing and wondering if this ‘girls are more social’ idea is just the flip-side of the ‘boys are better at maths’ meme and if there doesn’t have to be another approach.

Anyway, to try to address our girls programming group issue we’re arranging for some tutor’s from the Girls Programming Network to come and present to the Year 7 and 8 girls. Our hope is that some positive female role-models might sway a few more girls to try out programming.

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