Despite the phenomenal rise in computing over the last 50 years, the birth of the internet, and our ever increasing reliance on technology, women are still not engaging with computer science at the same rate as men.
This has been outlined in a recent report from the University of Roehampton, which reveals that only 9% of girls schools offer computing at A-level, compared with 44% of boys schools, and 25% of mixed-sex sixth forms and colleges.
The report shows that in 2016 only a minority of schools (29%) entered pupils for GCSE computing – despite it being a foundation subject on the national curriculum. The figure is even lower at A-level, with only 24% of schools entering their students for the qualification.
Things don’t fair any better in further education either, with the Digest of Education statistics revealing the percentage of females who took an undergraduate degree in computer science in 1970-71 was 14%. This rose to 37% in 1983-84 but gradually declined to 18% in 2010-11.
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In the current age, these statistics are depressing, especially as being a “computer scientist”, rather than “computer literate”, is becoming increasingly important. And as deep learning, machine learning, big data and artificial intelligence enter common usage, it is useful for all genders to have an appreciation and engagement with these technologies – not just the boys.
The geek effect
But on top of this poor provision in UK schools, one factor putting women off the subject is almost certainly the geek culture that surrounds computer science. You only need to read Steven Levy’s classic book Hackers to get an idea of where the geeks in computing came from.
And this is still how many people see computer scientists: as nerds, with no social skills and pale complexions – pizza eating, coke guzzling geeks who are chained to a keyboard for days on end.
Even Bill Gates – one of the richest men in the world after forming Microsoft – did not make being a geek cool. If anything, he personified what a geek was. So although people may have envied his financial status, it’s fair to say that they probably didn’t aspire to be like the man himself – even if he did change the world.
Steve Jobs on the other hand, was a little different. As one of the founders of Apple, he represented cool, or at least Apple did. But he still never quite got to the same levels of “cool” that somebody like Virgin’s Richard Branson has achieved.