Showing how computer science can save the world might encourage girls to study it

Mike O’Dea and Xianghan (Christine) O’Dea discuss how to overcome the gender imbalance and inspire more women to pursue a future in computer science

Dr Michael O’Dea is a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at York St John University, and is a Senior Fellow of the HEA

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Dr Xianghan (Christine) O’Dea is Senior Lecturer, Course Leader in York Business School, York St John University

Computer science education has a problem: there is a significant gender imbalance in those who study it.

This imbalance seems to start at school and continue all the way through to degree level. It appears to be more significant in the West, in particular in countries where there is higher overall equality, such as the UK.

Data from Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that female computer science students in UK higher education institutions in the last four years (2016-2020) only comprised between 17-20 per cent of the intake in each academic year.

Geeks and role models

Should this imbalance persist, we run a real risk of substantially diluting the talent pool which we can call upon and also distort the direction that new technological innovations take.

It has a negative impact on the labour market due to the skill gaps between both genders. Female students are also missing opportunities pursuing challenging and well-paid jobs in this field.

It is worth pointing out that gender inequality is not confined to computer science, it is also commonly seen in other STEM subjects, as well as in some natural science subjects.

The percentage of female students studying engineering and technology courses in the UK between 2018 and 2020 is very similar to that in computer science. Likewise, 2019 A-level results in the UK suggested that only 23 per cent of girls chose to study physics.

Research reveals that gender inequality in computer science seems to be the result of a number of factors including:

  • Gender stereotypes – There is a perceived negative image of the subject and of computer scientists by females. Computer scientists are often viewed as nerdy, geeks, computer gamers and/or innately brilliant.
  • Lack of role models – The most famous figures in computer science are men, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. There is a marked lack of female ones. There is also a lack of female computer science teachers, especially at secondary school, which means there aren’t many female role models that girls can aspire to emulate.
  • Unwelcoming learning environments – Computer science labs are often seen as sterile and boring. Related to this is the idea that coding or programming is for men. These combine to reinforce the idea that girls don’t belong.
  • A lack of social encouragement – Some parents and teachers do not believe that computer science is a suitable subject for girls, and many girls often also adopt the same attitude.

Motivating techniques

This issue has been the subject of much research over the years. However, the solutions offered do not seem to have helped us address the core issue.

What the research does show us so far is that gender imbalance is in place well before girls get to study computer science in higher education.Girls have formed a negative opinion of the subject by the time they reach their early teens.

A recent study in Germany of computer science students, both male and female, showed that there was a strong intrinsic motivation to study the subject, and most significantly that they were interested in the subject. In contrast, the influence of extrinsic motivators, such as career prospects, family, and friends, was far less apparent in their decision.

What we have also seen is that, although other STEM subjects such as engineering and physics show similar gender imbalances, some other sciences do not, notably veterinary science, biology, and medicine. In fact, female undergraduates outnumber males in these subjects.

In the past, these subjects also skewed towards males, so what changed? A 2012 study may point us in the right direction. After interviewing 150 physics and biology academics, they noted that women were motivated by science that had a practical application that benefited society.

We believe that computer science and other gender-imbalanced STEM subjects could make themselves more intrinsically motivating to females if they change their story to show explicitly how they can, and do, change the world and society for the better.

In order to attract more girls to study computer science, we need to address the intrinsic motivation of girls and cultivate their interest in the subject from an early age, and in a more creative way.

We need to change the perception of computer science by promoting female role models. We need to tell girls (and boys) about pioneers such as Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Hedy Lamarr. We also need to show girls that women such as Susan Wojcicki at YouTube, Lisa Su at AMD, and Safra Catz at Oracle are successfully running tech companies.

Future focused

We also need to show that computer science is playing, and will play, an increasingly important role in addressing and solving some of the major problems that society faces.

We know Generation Z is very concerned with the climate and environment crisis, with the 2019 Amnesty International “Future of Humanity” survey showing that 41 per cent of the 18–25 years surveyed viewed climate change as the most pressing issue facing the world.

Many children and teenagers can perhaps tell you how environmental science and biology might play a role in solving this crisis, but maybe not how computer science, physics, chemistry, and maths could also help to discover and implement many of the future solutions we may come to rely upon to solve the climate and environment crises, for example, smart disaster response, liveable cities, distributed energy grids, and smart food systems and agriculture.

So, could it be that informing and showing the next generation of girls how computer science can help them fix the climate crisis would be enough to develop their intrinsic motivation to study the subject?

This question indeed needs to be explored in future research. In order to do so, we suggest that universities and schools need to reorient the way that computer science is taught to make this explicit and obvious.

For instance, students can be shown how data and computer modules can help predicate environmental future; such as water modelling, pollution modelling, smart monitoring of deforestation, and climate informatics.

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