How do we show girls they can achieve their goals through computer science?
Hayley Leonard shares how we can demonstrate the importance of computing for helping others and improving society, with the aim of keeping more girls and women engaged in the subject.
Last year, Katharine Childs wrote a blog post about solving real-world problems with computing, which is linked to one of our approaches in the Gender Balance in Computing research programme. Now that our Relevance project is in the last stages of recruitment and due to begin in January 2022, we wanted to revisit the topic and how it can improve female pupils’ engagement with computing.
Computing and career goals
We know from broader research into educational and career choices that young people are more likely to choose and stick with subjects that they believe will lead to jobs that match their values and goals (and often those of their families and cultural groups). For example, having well-paid and stable employment may be the most important factor in choosing a career for one young person. Another young person may place greater value on the opportunities to help others and improve society in their job instead.
Computing, along with a range of STEM subjects, can suffer from the perception that it does not provide opportunities to achieve these more altruistic or people-focused goals (known in the literature as “communal goals”). Stereotypes of computing include working alone, being male-dominated, and focusing on gaming, which can put off people with communal goals. We know that girls and women are more likely to report communal goals than males, and that feeling like you are working communally is important for a sense of belonging, which is often reduced for women in computing.
Exit points in the computing pipeline
There are multiple possible points at which people with communal goals may leave computing.
For example, let’s imagine Leah, a 13-year-old who enjoys computing but doesn’t believe pursuing it as a career will mean she can achieve her goal of helping others. Her expectations of computing do not match her goals, and so she decides to opt-out of computing at an early stage in her education.
Aaliyah is 20 years old and has continued with computing to degree level, but has found it to be very abstract in content and focused on programming. Her experiences of computing do not match her goals and so she does not choose to continue with a computing career.
Finally, Temi is 28 and has worked in the tech sector for seven years after completing a degree in computer science. She has also experienced a mismatch between her goals and those of her colleagues and companies, and has tried to fulfil her communal goals outside of work through volunteering. Temi finally decides that the adaptations she has made to her work life are not enough to fulfil her goals and leaves the tech industry.
Although these examples demonstrate difficulties across the computing pipeline, it is possible to begin to address all of these issues in the earliest stages at school through the curriculum and teaching approaches used to introduce pupils to computing. Below are a few suggestions of things you can try out, based on research in the area.
Three things you can do right now to help pupils address communal goals in computing
1. Set computing in a broader societal context
Link to topics and issues that are meaningful and relevant to your pupils, and give them opportunities to identify these issues where possible. Also take time to show:
- different jobs and careers that use computing in ways that achieve communal goals
- how the skills that the pupils are learning can be used to achieve these goals
2. Promote role models who use computing to achieve communal goals
Making links with people who use computing to help others can be a powerful way to inspire your pupils. It can also help address stereotypes of who a computer scientist is and what they do. STEM Ambassadors are inspiring and relatable role models who volunteer to support schools. Arrange a visit for your school to help pupils to better understand real world applications of computing and raise their career aspirations through engaging activities. Think about local businesses or opportunities in your area, as well as investigating organisations that match people in industry to schools, such as Founders4Schools. There is also a range of videos on YouTube and websites such as Code.org that show different people and careers using computing. You can also see how others use computing to address communal goals in testimonials from students like Alice, which we reported in our ‘I Belong In Computer Science’ series of interviews.
3. Identify opportunities for pupils to directly interact with the beneficiaries of communally-focused projects
In topics where pupils are asked to produce an artefact (a website, an app, etc) to address a specific problem or issue, try to personalise it. For example, think about issues that affect your school or your local community, and encourage pupils to actively engage with the expected users of that artefact. Provide opportunities for older pupils to support younger pupils to learn computing, in class or through extracurricular activities. This is also a great way to demonstrate how pupils can use their computing knowledge and skills to help others.
It’s really important to note that these activities do not need to come at a cost to the core computing curriculum. The Year 9 ‘Data science’ unit in the Teach Computing Curriculum uses local and global data sets to identify trends that address specific problems for different types of users, setting computing in a broader societal context while addressing the curriculum in England: “undertake creative projects that involve selecting, using, and combining multiple applications, preferably across a range of devices, to achieve challenging goals, including collecting and analysing data and meeting the needs of known users.” (Department for Education, 2013)
Finally, it’s important to recognise that both male and female pupils have a mixture of communal and more individualistic goals, and so the suggested strategies offer benefits for all learners. Communal goals should be clearly integrated into computing and highlighted to pupils so that they have a broader concept of computing and how it can be used.
If you would like to put some of these strategies into practice with your Year 8 classes, you can sign up to take part in our Relevance project as part of the Gender Balance in Computing research programme until 10 November 2021. Find out more about the research programme here.
Raspberry Pi Foundation’s guide for culturally relevant and responsive computing in the classroom - guidelines and suggested resources for making computing more meaningful and relevant for pupils who are learning computing.
Teach Computing Curriculum - full units of work to teach computing from key stage 1 to key stage 4.
Read more about it
Boucher, K. L., Fuesting, M. A., Diekman, A. B., & Murphy, M. C. (2017). Can I work with and help others in this field? How communal goals influence interest and participation in STEM fields. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 901.