I’m really lucky to work with some very appreciative and lovely kids, and I get a lot of really positive, encouraging feedback, like the following two comments from girls I have taught in the past.
“I’ve managed to do things I kinda didn’t really believe I could do”
“I would never have thought to do an IT degree, I thought it was too hard. You showed me I could do it!”
I’m thrilled that they now know they can do these things, but at the same time I rage that we are not winning this war. We are, in fact, going backwards. There are less girls going into computing degrees than there were when I was an undergrad, and I was a pretty rare beast even then!
It is still raining men. And we are still raining on women’s self-esteem when we perpetuate the myth that computing is a man’s game, that girls aren’t good at this stuff, and that only guys can really code.
From the girls in my classes, I hear a lot of comments like this:
“To be honest, I felt really nervous at the start of the first lesson because most of the people in our class looked as if they were pro at coding and I was just a beginner who had no idea how to code.”
” I never thought at the start of this year that I’d be able to write code like I can now.”
“Although I wasn’t exactly a natural at coding, now I’m the top of my class at uni! ”
They say they’re “not natural at coding”. They say they never thought they could do it. They are amazed to find that they can.
A lot of that comes from the fact that they have never been offered the opportunity to code. They’ve never seen it as something they could do. Where boys get technical lego and coding clubs, girls get barbie dolls and dancing classes. So when girls actually do find their way into coding, what do they see? They see boys who seem so much better at this stuff than them. What I see, on the other hand, is simply boys who’ve been coding for longer and now have skills and confidence that they have built over time. Because they’ve had opportunities.
There are no coding naturals. There are people who enjoy it, and people who’ve been doing a lot of it. Think Bill Gates was a natural? Turns out he had unprecedented access to computers as a kid (check out Malcolm Gladwell’s illuminating book “Outliers” for details).
It’s all about practice and opportunities. I look like a coding whiz when you throw me a problem I know how to solve, but give me something I haven’t done before and it takes time to figure out a solution. The more access kids have had to computers and to coding, the more things they have done before, and the more daunting they seem to the kids next to them who haven’t seen anything like this stuff before.
So how do we change all that? How do we reverse the slide and bring women back into tech? Role models definitely count. I teach half the year 10s at my school, yet 5 out of the 6 girls who chose to study my year 11 computer science subject came from my classes. I’d love to say that’s because I’m awesome, but more than anything I suspect it’s because they saw a woman who was comfortable and competent in a tech role, and it dawned on them that maybe they could do the same. We need to show the world our technically savvy women.
Ultimately we need to give all kids, male and female, chances to code early on. Some will love it and want to keep going. Others will find it’s not really their thing, but will still benefit from the early exposure to a logical, structured way of thinking – and if it’s done properly, they’ll have some fun along the way. But if we give girls the same opportunities all along that we give to boys, they will have the chance to develop those skills and not hit my year 11 course feeling fundamentally inferior when they are in no way less talented.
Once girls actually make it into my computer science class, they discover that gender isn’t really an issue. In fact when I showed one of my students an early draft of this article, to get permission to quote her, she was shocked. “I had no idea there were actually that few girls in our class. I’d never actually realized that before. That’s insane.” Because we weren’t divided into boys and girls. We were just a group of people exploring computer science. That’s how it should be.
There are so many girls out there who would rock technology (in more ways than one), who never get the chance to find out. Let’s change that.
This year I had 6 girls in my class of 34 year 11s. I often joke that when I get to 50-50 I can retire, job done. Sadly, I don’t think there’s any need to start planning my retirement party.