A-Levels Results, Computing and the Gender Gap

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The day I received my A-Level results seems an age away now. I remember travelling across India in blistering heat from the city of Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal (and remember not fully appreciating the wonder of it due to my constant worrying) to the Red City of Jaipur, all the while experiencing a pretty brutal case of ‘Delhi Belly’, scrambling find a phone to make contact my family back in England to tell me how I did. I had originally wanted to study Neuroscience at University College London, the thought of which was keeping me sane through severe dehydration…

…in short, everything turned out fine.

This year’s results in summary: the A*-A rate remains pretty much the same at 25.9%; 77.3% of papers were graded between A* and C , which is an increase from 2014; more students are studying ‘traditional’ subjects such as Maths and Science; and universities are offering a record number of places to students, most likely due to the removal of the cap on numbers. The Guardian has published some interesting infographics showing off the stats, while the full range of statistics can be seen here at JCQ.

But from a data point of view, the most peculiar thing is the gender gap that remains in computing studies. Only 8.5% of students who studied computing in the UK this year were female, and these girls are certainly capable. In fact, 20.6% of girls achieved an A*-A grade compared to 15.3% of boys, and 62.9% of girls achieved A*- C grades compared to 59.8% of boys.

OFGenderGap.Fig1

Above: The total number of students in the UK who studied Computing A-Level between 2004 and 2015. Source: Joint Council for Qualifications

So why does this gender gap remain?

Negative attitudes towards computing among 16-18 year old girls can be seen before the year 2000. Studies show that when asked, girls in the UK were more likely to describe computing as having ‘a rather unfeminine image’ and many assumed they were not qualified to study computing, when in fact they were. Other attitudes included ‘men can be hostile to females with abilities in computing’ and that girls would rather work with real-life people than abstract objects (Durndell and Thomson, 1997). But they concluded that attitudes seemed to be changing, albeit slowly.

More recently, it seems that women are still discouraged from a career in IT and computing. ‘Guys are going to be judgmental’, ‘Some boys do try and make you look stupid’, and ‘[boys] think they’re a lot better than girls’ are the kinds of comments expressed by girls who took part in a summer camp for computing in Mississippi called Bulldog Bytes: Digital Divas. When the economy is in poor health, women are much less likely to complete computing introduction courses and also pursue careers in computing. The disparities are reminiscent of those seen in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects (STEM) where similar gender gaps exist. To find out why, one can look further afield than the UK and examine studies conducted in the USA and China. Questions like these and many others were rolled out and discussed in a paper by Sheu and Wei in 2015.

The roots of the problem

Females tended to prefer participating in club activities and playing games less than males do while in STEM education. This seems obvious, but females who prefer working with real-life people and working in groups may deter most women away from a career in computing (if the role is not team-based). It also seems that women tend to know the job market as well as their males counterparts do, and that they have similar perceptions of job availability when the market is rough. Women even feel more prepared for STEM jobs after completing a course than male students. So what is deterring women from taking up computing in the first place, or from pursuing a career in it?

It could be that students, both male and female, can become disinterested in computing if a social context to what they are learning is not implemented. This is more important for girls, who understand that skills such are programming are means to greater ends and have greater concerns over computing culture than males do. The same types of studies have found that girls receive much less encouragement from family, friends and teachers with regards to pursuing a computing degree.

Another way that girls suffer when they do eventually take up computing is the competitive environment in which it is often taught. Female students prefer collaboration rather than competition, thus girls tend to not participate as much modern education tends to treat computing as an individualist effort, when in fact the most creative and effective solutions can be formulated and understood when a collaboration is formed.

Bridging the gap

It might also be that STEM jobs are not seen as creative or as challenging as other subjects. In fact, computer sciences can be applied to the majority of industries, including creative areas, and students do not seem to be aware of this. Some educational programmes are attempting to engage girls in computing by appealing to their interests in the arts and how creative solutions can come about through coding and programming.

Bulldog Bytes: Digital Divas is a project set up by Mississippi State University to encourage girls to pick up programming and design skills through collaborative robotics projects. Educators in the UK could take note – the girls thrived on the opportunity to experience how coding works in the real world as well as to develop social media skills and get the opportunity to make them feel like they can make contributions to the world of computing world. Getting girls interested in STEM subjects early on, advising educators on how best to engage girls and providing more social relevance to computing challenges could be the way forward to bridging the gap between the genders.

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