Narrowing the gender gap in computing

Females are consistently outnumbered by males when it comes to computing subjects and careers. While this is slowly beginning to change, there is still some work to be done. We examine why it’s important to have gender balance in computing, and what initiatives there are to encourage this

The number of young women in the UK applying to start computing degrees in 2024 has risen by ten per cent on last year, according to BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. In total there were 18,880 applications from UK 18-year-old women to study Computing at university this year, up from 17,140 in 2023.
    
While male applicants still outnumber females in computer science by 4.1 to 1 this year, the gap has closed slightly from 4.4 to 1 at the same stage in the application cycle in 2023, BCS found.
    
But why is gender balance important in the field of computing? As technology plays such a crucial role in our lives, having more people from different backgrounds involved in its creation can help break down gender and racial economic inequalities. What’s more, gender diversity reflects the customer base as such a variety of people use technology. A gender imbalanced workforce in computing and technology can mean that the needs of all users are not met.
    
Gender imbalance in computing could become a particular issue when it comes to the development of artificial intelligence. While AI is supposed to be neutral, it’s made by humans, which means it has the same bias as we have.
    
The first step towards addressing this is making sure training datasets are as diverse as possible, not only in terms of gender, but also ethnicity, age, sexuality and so on. And the people developing AI also need to be from different backgrounds.
    
Gillian Arnold, President of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, said that the recent uplift in women choosing computing degrees was good news for the future safety and fairness of AI. She said: “There’s still a long way to go until we have the truly diverse tech profession we need to ensure emerging technology like AI benefits everyone. That also includes creating a more inclusive culture across the technology profession itself.
    
“Diversity is more than just a concept when it comes to teams creating AI – reducing bias is a critical factor in all teams if we are to get more innovation in areas like medical diagnosis.
    
“People from every background need to be encouraged by the demand for computing and know that the tech profession needs them.”

Supporting girls in computing

An initiative called ‘I Belong’ has been launched to support more girls into computer science. Run by The National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) and STEM Learning, the initiative was recently celebrated at Tech for Success event at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in London which saw more than 50 people networking to bring together education and industry to focus on the important mission of building STEM opportunities for women and girls.
    
The I Belong initiative aims to help teachers and leaders understand the barriers to girls’ participation in computer science and plan to overcome them.
    
Computer science is the fastest-growing STEM subject - but girls are consistently outnumbered by boys. In 2023, only one in five GCSE Computer Science and 15 per cent of all A level Computer Science entries were from female students in England.
    
The I Belong initiative offers schools solutions to this including teacher CPD and access to Computing Ambassadors – industry professionals who visit classrooms and inspire young people into a computing career by explaining their successful and rewarding career journeys.
    
It also provides practical, useful and free resources including posters to put up in classrooms, an evidence-informed handbook, teaching resources and pedagogical guidance to support their classroom practice.
    
Séverine Trouillet, STEM Learning’s CEO, said: “The I Belong campaign is critical to help build an inclusive subject where girls feel they belong and can succeed. If girls feel they belong in tech, everybody benefits.
 
“Choosing to study Computer Science can be really empowering for students – it opens a huge world of opportunity to them. In an increasingly digital world, we need to ensure that the subject is inclusive, and that we are getting the best talent in the subject for the future. That starts in education, which is why the I Belong programme is pivotal to us moving the dial on the perception of computer science as a male-dominated subject and field.”
    
Amy Shocker, head of corporate social responsibility at TCS, said: “We have been collaborating with STEM Learning for many years, helping our associates become STEM Ambassadors that inspire the next generation of digital innovators, as well as bringing our flagship STEM programme, goIT, into schools.
    
“We continue our commitment to elevate technology startups, not-for-profits, and organisations striving for positive change in the field. Partnering with NCCE and STEM Learning is an important aspect of this work, building equitable and inclusive pathways for marginalised groups, young people, women and girls underrepresented in the technology space.”
    
The event included a presentation of certificates to the first schools to complete the programme, which were presented by Karen Blake, co-CEO of Tech Talent Charter, and Jenny Oldroyd, director of curriculum and general qualifications at the Department for Education.
    
A guest panel of female tech innovators then discussed the importance of supporting females into STEM subjects and careers.
    
Karen Blake said: “We know the diversity of thoughts makes for the most innovative teams. We need those different opinions coming in to make the best products; our technologies are a reflection of us.”

Become a champion for girls

The I Belong initiative is looking for teachers who are paving the way for girls in computer science to join the mission by becoming I Belong Champions. This involves completing the ‘Encouraging girls into GCSE computer science’ course.
    
The I Belong Champions help schools to create a sense of belonging for girls and underrepresented groups into computing. They take a lead role in helping their own school progress towards the NCCE Computing Quality Mark, with a focus on improving Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and SEND self-assessments.
    
Champions also embed inclusive practices through staff support and training, signposting information and guidance, as well as encourage teachers to benefit from evidence-based teaching and learning approaches, and inclusive enrichment activities provided by the NCCE. They also work to share effective practice and examples of success with other educators through forums and teacher networks.

Girls in cyber security

The Government’s National Cyber Security Centre runs an annual CyberFirst Girls Competition, which seeks to inspire young women to pursue careers in cyber.
    
The competition sees teams use a range of cyber skills to compete in code cracking, decrypting messages and solving puzzles. More than 12,500 girls across the UK took part in the 2023/2024 competition, with 13 teams claiming the top prize. It saw the most teams and schools take part since its inception seven years ago, with 3,608 teams from over 750 schools participating. The contest is designed to encourage girls to explore the world of cyber and technology, helping to address the lack of diversity in the UK cyber workforce, where women currently make up just 17 per cent.
    
Chris Ensor, NCSC deputy director for cyber growth, said: “Congratulations to all the teams who took part in this year’s CyberFirst Girls Competition, they’ve shown some incredible talent, teamwork and dedication.
    
“A special mention to the respective winners, whose success is not just a triumph in the competition but a great demonstration of breaking barriers and addressing the need for greater female representation in the cyber security industry.
    
“I’d like to thank all the teachers, for the incredible effort they put in to inspire their students and our industry partners for their efforts in making the competition so successful.”
    
Continuing to make progress

Advances in technology are going to continue at a rapid rate, and technology will continue to penetrate our daily lives. We therefore have to ensure that the people developing technology are from different genders and backgrounds to help break down gender and racial economic inequalities.
    
Schools are in an excellent position to do this, and initiatives like those discussed in this article should support and encourage schools to take on this agenda.

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