Getting women into tech careers has never been more important, but teachers believe old-fashioned stereotypes about subjects such as design and technology and computer science put girls off choosing them at school.
In 2020, the number of girls choosing to study computer science GCSE was 16,919 – just over 21.4% of total entrants – compared with 61,540 boys. Slightly fewer girls and boys picked the subject compared with the previous year.
Girls studying design and technology for GCSE fell from 29,741 in 2019 to 28,763 last year and sadly, the low numbers are reflected in job roles. The percentage of women employed in tech has barely moved from 15.7% in 2009 to approximately 17% today.
Sarah Walsh, a technology teacher at the Hathershaw college, Oldham, says getting girls into Stem classrooms is vital for the future of UK industry.
“In most schools, only about 10% of students taking product design would be girls, whereas food technology has always been around a 50-50 split. Textiles is 90% girls,” says Walsh.
“We no longer use the terms ‘woodwork, sewing and cooking’ in schools. But we know students still pick up those terms, perhaps from parents and grandparents who recall doing ‘woodwork’ at school. It’s a very old-fashioned idea and it can put girls off. It’s not just boys sat in a workshop with tools. Technology is so much more than that now and although work has been done in education, we need to challenge the stereotypes and the image of these subjects if we are to draw females in.”
Technology has been a huge feature of the pandemic, with the creation of Covid test kits and the test-and-trace system. Walsh believes this has highlighted a need for “creative and dynamic” people with “problem-solving attitudes” who can get the job done.
“Students have been able to see the role technology can play in the real world. We don’t know yet whether this will draw more girls in, there will be a lag before we see the effect. But the need is greater than ever.”
A recent study by the Learning and Work Institute said the UK was facing a looming digital skills crisis caused by the falling numbers of young people taking IT courses. It found a gender gap in digital skills, with young women accounting for just 17% of A-level entrants in IT subjects. There have also been concerns that fewer girls are choosing to study computing since the old information communication technology (ICT) GCSE qualification was phased out and replaced by computer science. In 2019, 17,158 girls studied computer science, compared with the 20,577 girls who studied ICT in 2018.
So how do schools draw girls in? Extracurricular activities such as allowing industry specialists to visit schools are vital – but coronavirus has made this difficult. “We’ve got a Stem club running at the minute and 66% of attendees are girls,” explains Walsh. “I have previously worked with Manchester Museum, allowing students to do a Dragons’ Den project where they pitched and sold products.”
Elizabeth English teaches computer science at the Harris Academy St John’s Wood, in Westminster, north-west London. She says numbers have been steadily improving, but there is still work to do.
“Having female computer science teachers is a massive bonus,” English explains. “There is that old adage – you can’t be what you can’t see. We are lucky at my school to have a lot of female teachers in all Stem subjects but that is probably unusual.”
She says they also focus on having good access to employers. “Google came into school and spent a day working with students. They got very excited about the subject and could see how what they are learning translates to real life.
“We know it is only about the choice and not the enjoyment. Once girls are studying computer science they often love it and perform well.”
English hopes a rise in female gamers and YouTubers could also translate to more girls taking her course. “It’s not a change that is going to happen overnight,” she says. “But a lot of kids, male and female, love social media and YouTube. There are a couple of big gamer girls online who have normalised girls gaming and loving computers. The image is changing. It has become a bit cooler to be geeky now. Hopefully in time this will translate to more numbers for us.”
Amelia Bryant is a trainee art, design and technology teacher, also at Harris Academy St John’s Wood. She studied fashion technology at university and worked for the likes of Nike, Barbour and Cath Kidston as a product developer before changing career paths during lockdown in March 2020 and retraining as a teacher.
“Lots of DT courses are taught by male colleagues but I noticed in my training there were more females, so there has been a shift, “ she says. “It’s good to see females in the workshop.
“We have a lot of girls who study food and nutrition, but fewer girls choose DT and engineering. Two-thirds of students in those subjects are boys. It’s definitely something that can be improved.”
She says it’s important to get girls excited about technology while they are still young. “We have found that engaging girls between the ages of 11 and 13 can make a real difference as they are more likely to choose the subject for their GCSEs. Getting them into extracurricular clubs at this age is key.”
The school recently started a robotics club, which has a 50:50 split of boys and girls. Enrichment days, where all students do taster sessions, have also been successful in boosting the number of girls choosing to study technology.
“Old-fashioned preconceptions about these subjects do still exist, often driven by family, friends or a wider culture,” adds Bryant. “I hope if more women like me choose to teach technology, we can get more girls into our classrooms and change the face of technology in this country in the future.”