Firstly, let me make a confession. I’m not a computer scientist. I do work in one of the best UK Computer Science departments (I may have a slight bias!), but I am an English Literature graduate, surely one of the most non-vocational of arts subjects (unless you want to be an English teacher, which at one point, I did harbour ambitions to be). Some may say that doesn’t qualify me to write an article like this, but I disagree – my job is to enthuse young people enough that they want to come and study Computer Science.
I work with some incredibly brilliant colleagues, and when they explain some of the breakthroughs they have made, I am astounded and amazed (and to tell you the truth, sometimes totally mystified – quantum computing, anyone?). Translating their incredibly powerful and at times very technical research papers into something much younger audiences can understand has given me an insight (albeit from a theoretical not a practical standpoint) into the subject. Of course, I don’t claim to be an expert, but working here has made me passionate about the subject and about opening that wonder up for others to discover.
We think that everyone knows Computer Science is important. More and more, technology is taking over every aspect of our lives. How many people don’t have smart phones or use social media? How many people don’t drive cars or fly in planes that aren’t controlled by computers? Yes, there are some – but not many…
Our Department is currently incubating the engineers and scientists of the future. Isn’t that an amazing thought in itself? And, as a woman myself, of course I want more of those who will be responsible for making our world a technologically safe place to be female. But let’s be honest – we’re hardly starting on a level playing field, are we?
When I was asked to write this article, a colleague drew my attention to a paper (from 2013!) entitled “Enterprise Architecture: Explain it to Your Girlfriend”. Basically the premise was: explain enterprise architecture to a friend or relative who doesn’t work in IT. Sure, not quite as snappy as “your girlfriend”, but what message is that title giving out? Media portrayal of scientists in general is also generally male and nerdy – though I like to think that Bernadette in The Big Bang Theory is doing something for the women in science cause.
If those working in the industry aren’t trying to change their perceptions, what chance is there to change that? I would argue that universities are in the best position of all – we can change the way the subject is viewed in schools and academia (and the new ways that Computer Science will be taught in schools will help massively). We can also send out into the workplace computer scientists who don’t see gender as a barrier – and so perhaps we can go a long way to changing perceptions in the industry and the world at large. A bold ambition, perhaps, but go big or go home, right?
When I thought about how we, as one department, could influence this, I wanted to know why the girls we currently have studying here chose Computer Science. I wanted to find the positives to see if there was something there – not just why many of their peers didn’t choose the subject.
Interestingly, a lot of our female students are not from the UK. Those who were, and even the boys from the UK, felt that many British girls are being turned off the subject by its traditional “geeky” reputation. The international girls were more pragmatic – they realised the employment potential of studying Computer Science was huge and that’s why they chose it: they knew that technology is always advancing so they would be able to get a well-paid job at the end of their degree.
Very sensible, but we don’t all choose degree subjects because we know we’ll get a job at the end (trust me, I was an Arts student). Some choose subjects because they have a passion for them – I love reading and have done from a very young age – and many of our (mostly male) students have been programming or playing computer games from a young age.
Traditionally, our work in schools has been to target age groups, or schools we have a good relationship with, or those we know are interested in the subject – we even host a residential summer school for those in Year 12 thinking of studying Computer Science, to give a flavour of what studying at university is like. We do get a healthy number of girls on this residential, though they are still outnumbered.
The question is, though, how can we get those who don’t necessarily consider Computer Science as a girl-friendly, or even just not a male-dominated, discipline?
So this year we’re looking at our outreach with girls differently. We will still use our female students as ambassadors, as we always have, on open days, interview days and in our literature, as a way of showing those who are interested that we do have girls here, honest! But this year we’re going full bore on focusing our attention on just girls.
The first of our “girls-only” events will be held in the next academic year, and we’re working on putting it together now. We have female academics on board who specialise in bio-inspired computation and human-computer interaction – a heady mix of two very different topic areas – both keen to avoid making the event pink and about make-up. We want to open their eyes to what they can achieve with Computer Science, and take away the message that it’s just about sitting in a darkened room with a keyboard and energy drinks. It’s not – it’s often about gender-neutral and ubiquitous areas of life: smart phones (and I read recently that sixth formers spend an average of 7.5 hours a day on their phone), apps of all descriptions, social media and the internet, to name a few examples.
So we’re embarking even more seriously on a quest to inspire more girls into Computer Science. Wish us luck! If you want to know more, or even want to be involved with our efforts, keep in touch via the following ways: