Girl: “I can’t wait to see how they make the bird come to life. The puppets should be amazing.”
Mother: “Don’t you worry about that dear. You let the boys watch out for that. You just sit back and enjoy the drama.”
That was the conversation I overheard a few months ago when I went to see Stormboy – a play that uses puppets as the birds. We sat next to a family of four – mother, father, son and daughter – and I was struck at the time at how casually, and thoughtlessly, the mother had framed her daughter’s expectations.
I was reminded of this conversation by a recent article, What makes girls fall in love with computers and code, which basically says that the answer is exactly the same things that make boys fall in love with computers and code: “So perhaps the best way to get a girl interested in computers is simply to put them in front of her as often and as early in life as we do for her male counterparts…”
The problem with getting girls involved is not the activity itself – it’s the way the activity is viewed. When we give young boys LEGO for their birthdays and give young girls dolls or colouring sets, when books aimed at young boy-readers feature technology rich spy missions and girls read Rainbow Magic, is it any surprise when girls don’t turn out to be as interested in computing (or science, or maths)? I have to admit here that I am a firm believer in nurture not nature as to why girls turn out to be interested in ‘girly’ things – there are numerous studies showing that even from the earliest age adults respond to boys and girls differently and thus push them in one direction or the other. There is certainly nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that boys should have a greater affinity for technology – and, in fact, when you look at the generally accepted stereotyping, coding ought to appeal to the creative, better able to sit and concentrate girls.
The problem isn’t with getting girls interested in computing – the problem doesn’t lie with the girls: The problem lies with a wider society that frowns upon such pursuits for girls. By the time we generally try to interest kids in computing, in late primary school or early high school, expectations have been set. Boys are just waiting for a chance to do something with a computer but it takes a strong girl to run in the face of society’s expectations. It seems to me that the answer here does not lie in marketing to young girls, or at least not alone. The main part of the answer lies in marketing to parents.
It should not take strength for a 13-year-old girl to choose to join a computer club (although thank goodness for the character shown by the ones making that choice today). It should be a natural and accepted choice which is validated by parents, grandparents and the rest of their immediate society. But it wont be, until we start marketing the idea that girls should be interested in computers to parents and teachers and break the current cycle of stereotyping. I know, changing society’s views of women’s roles, such a small, task.
The core point to think about here is that there is nothing about coding that should not appeal at least as much to girls as to boys. Getting girls to love computers is less about changing the nature of computers and more about changing the way society views girls.