What works for girls in computing?

By The SCARI Computing project team. Posted

The SCARI — Subject Choice, Attainment, and Representation in Computing — project is researching how gender diversity in computing can be improved. Currently, only around 20 percent of young people in the UK who choose GCSE computer science (for students aged 14–16) are girls. However, some schools appear to do better than others in terms of numbers of students, as well as the proportion of girls choosing the subject. The SCARI Computing project team collected reflections from computing teachers in some of these schools to share good practice. Teacher names and school details have been omitted in order to preserve the ethical integrity of the research. This research is funded by the Nuffield Foundation. You can follow our social media and website for updates to this ongoing research (@scaricomp, scaricomp.org/home, scaricomp@kcl.ac.uk).

A supportive team

Teacher A, Head of Computer Science

“Future jobs using computing skills are for all, not an elite selection. We need to show students how vital the subject is by showing how many industries it impacts: cassette videos no longer exist as we are streaming, cameras are being replaced by mobile phones, customer services are being taken over by artificial intelligence programs, and many more.

“Our department regularly speaks with students to see how they feel, asks for suggestions, and acts on them. For example, we have recently created a student team to represent the computing department, which is equally represented by boys and girls. This team handles promotion of the subject, delivering clubs to lower years at lunchtime and after school, and supporting the delivery of material to upskill parents in computing. These tasks provide wonderfulw opportunities and are a very good addition to their CVs. “I am also fortunate to have a wonderful senior leadership team who support ideas to encourage all students into computing. They have supported me with parent workshops, virtual reality headset use, 3D printers in the classroom, promotion of computing leadership roles, and competitions with rewards. The team actively expresses how important computing is for today’s society.”

Creative computing

Teacher B, Head of Department for Computing

“I believe there are several factors that are contributing to the lack of students choosing to study Computer Science GCSE, including the amount of funding available to schools to invest in IT suites and resources for extracurricular activities. There also isn’t clear information about which careers are available to students if they pursue a pathway into the industry. I also believe that the GCSE specification does not enable enough opportunities for students to be creative. Personally, I would like to see some more creative aspects added to syllabuses, such as minor game development.

I think it’s important to demonstrate just how much of the process of developing algorithms is filled with making mistakes and reading errors. I have seen smiles after working with a group of girls in the classroom and them witnessing that even as an experienced teacher, I am prone to making the simplest mistakes, like not declaring a variable or missing a semicolon somewhere. From this, they learn to focus on the fun aspect of problem-solving and not letting their mistakes discourage them from being the amazing computer scientists they can be.”

Culturally relevant

Teacher C, Curriculum Leader for Computing

“Although we haven’t quite cracked it yet, we’re trying to listen to students to see how we can do more of what inspires girls to enjoy computer science and less of what puts them off. We need to reward creativity and reflection, as well as the quantity of work produced. In some ways, the media is getting better at challenging gender stereotypes in tech roles, but subliminal gender messages in advertising are still divisive and damaging. We need to counter those with persistent and personalised positivity so that all students leave the room believing it when we tell them they can thrive in computing. The examples I use while in lessons arise out of my own (limited) life experience, so it really helps to know what students are interested in and motivated by so that I can adapt the activities to be more relevant to them. For example, while learning about the connotations of colour for effective digital media production, my class listened to a Ukrainian student passionately describe what the blue and yellow on her flag signify.

“There also needs to be an increase in the curriculum time dedicated to computing. There’s so much to cover that creativity can get squeezed out to make room for all the content. Ofsted, the Department for Education, and other national stakeholders in England should promote effective and inclusive computing provision by celebrating the benefits of students being digitally literate, computationally competent, and IT-savvy in wider society. The digital literacy and information technology strands of computing should be given equal emphasis to computer science at Key Stage 3 [students aged 11–14] and there should be a richer menu of progression opportunities at Key Stage 4 [students aged 14–16] than just GCSE computer science. I want students to be able to take pride in what they create, rather than just tick off what they’ve done.”

Challenging stereotypes

Teacher D, Head of Computing

“A risk of having a limited range of young people in computing is creating a belief that it’s only suited for specific groups. Computer science has a reputation for being hard, and students fear failing. If this message isn’t addressed, I think some students will opt for subjects that they find easier; subjects that they believe have a higher guarantee of success. There can be quite strong misconceptions about the GCSE — that it is hard, or that it is more for boys — which prevent many students from choosing the subject. It seems that girls generally don’t want to be one of the only girls, or even the only girl, in a class, so how the options are divided is also important. If computing is offered in one strand and there are more popular subjects within this band, girl numbers are going to be a lot lower than if it was offered in more than one strand. Computing teachers, as we know, are hard to recruit. If a department has a high turnover and is unstable with teachers, I think this affects students’ choices, as they don’t trust they will have a teacher throughout their GCSE.

“Family can also have an influence, and contacting home to celebrate achievement helps motivate students. I’ve always had a department policy for teachers to contact at least two students a week, which seems to have worked well. We also introduce role models students can relate to, for example, women who have contributed significantly to the field (Margaret Hamilton, Katherine Johnson, the ENIAC 6, and so on). This helps to show that girls can and should strive (and thrive) in computing, and challenges the notion that it is a boy subject.”


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