Girls in Computing: Not just a numbers game

Shila Odedra-Silvera

Shila Odedra-Silvera has been involved in tech for almost twenty years, with a break in the middle to raise her two fabulous girls. She has been a partner at FUZE Technologies for three years, and is thoroughly enjoy introducing students and teachers to coding. Experiencing first-hand, children of all ages and teachers new to computing, being inspired and enthralled by coding and electronics is amazingly gratifying in her experience.

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Women are still highly underrepresented in STEM subjects and technology. The 2015 statistics published by the Joint Qualifications Council have shown that girls account for just 16 per cent of those sitting the computer science GCSE, but they were also shown to perform very well, with 72 per cent of them attaining grades A* - C. Encouraging more girls into computing and technology is not just a numbers game; there is clearly a huge pool of talent and enthusiasm to be discovered from all pupils.

The critical issue

Coding is only one aspect of the technology industry, with innovation and creativity being just as important, but the skill is more than just executing simple commands on-screen. Coding teaches children how to think critically and how to be proficient problem solvers and inspires them to imagine the many possibilities computing has to offer.

"Knowing that problems aren’t… a problem gives us the confidence to try new thing."

The computational thinking skills that coding teaches us are incredibly important: we learn how to deal with problems, how to break them up into their component parts, figure out where the issue is, what the issue is, work out a fix and then implement that fix. Over time this practice builds confidence. Knowing that problems aren’t… a problem gives us the confidence to try new things and to try old things in new ways, knowing that when we come across a problem we know how to deal with it is empowering. Industry is crying out for our future generations to be more innovative, to think outside the box. Problem solving skills are life skills, important no matter what path our children choose to take.

Critical thinking is another skill that all children can possess and develop, so setting logical questions for them to experiment with is an important element to any lesson. Once they’re ready, tell your students that they are going to write a program, they need to think about what this program needs to accomplish, how that needs to be interpreted in order to write a program for it, then write the program. They will soon be building skills without even realising it!

Implementing a cross-curricular approach to the subject can really help to develop this further. By allowing pupils to consider the links between computing and other disciplines, such as coordinates in Geography, variables in maths or electronics in science, they will be able to get to grips with the idea of computational thinking far quicker.

Keeping it real

Showing how computing theory works in practice like this is crucial. I believe that for many girls, understanding the practical applications of a skill is the key to appreciating its value. Discussing how certain elements of coding can translate into real-world situations, or how the skills can be applied to various elements of the tech development process, can be a great way of sparking their curiosity and seeing the tangible benefits.

Make the subject as real and as interesting as you can. Ask your students what they would do if they could create anything with technology, and then get them to think about how they might achieve it. Discuss the technology that they use every day and explain how computers are used in running apps or games, or how they can be used more broadly, such as in drones and robots for disaster recovery, or guiding aeroplanes and rockets. "A huge variety of people are involved in the many different capacities of technology." But don’t just think about ‘big’ tech; get them to look at the world around them. Wiring up a simple light sensitive resistor and writing a few lines of code that uses the voltage it’s letting through to determine the radius of a circle on the screen, can help them understand the technology around reversing sensors in cars, wiring up a series of LEDs and writing a program to get them flashing in sequence, then change that sequence, they will realise that that is how traffic lights work.

Using their interests to start a conversation will help them to understand the vast spectrum of possibility created by technology, and may inspire them to start designing and creating their own solutions.

Think outside the box

The image of a geeky and socially inept male is in no way an accurate reflection of the professionals in the technology industry. A huge variety of people are involved in the many different capacities of technology, and no one, regardless of gender or background, should be denied the chance to get involved with this powerful tool to affect change in the world we live in.

Let’s break the stereotypes, let’s change the way society thinks about what girls should and should not, can or cannot do. There are no limits; if girls want to write a program to predict the next FIA Formula One champion or to program a robot arm to apply her lipstick, who are we to say it shouldn’t be so?

Campaigns like #ilooklikeanengineer have shown the world that women in technology don’t have to change who they are to be a part of STEM industries, or to enjoy technical subjects like computing, but there is still so much more to be done. By subverting expectations through finding role models and inspirations for girls, we may finally start seeing an increasing number of these talented young women engaging with the subject in the future.

Do you make any particular efforts to get female students into Computing? Share your experiences below.

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