Tag Archives: women in technology

Education Work

How to stop the gender gap in tech and coding

There’s a problem in our education systems, leading to a problem in our tech industry – the continued perception that coding is for boys…

When I was younger I wanted to be a games designer. But I didn’t know anything about engineering or coding and for some reason they seemed like impossible subjects, designed for people with completely different brains to mine. I started to think this career path wasn’t for me at all. I’d never heard of any female games designers or engineers and it felt unlikely that it would ever be possible for someone like me to build games.

Despite the introduction of the new UK computing curriculum and the rise in after-school coding clubs, such as CoderDojo and Code Club most girls’ perception of coding and engineering appears to have stayed the same.

This issue is serious and hasn’t been ignored. A multitude of campaigns have been launched, such as Google’s Made With Code program and the European Ada Awards, and more advice is being provided on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) focused careers to encourage more girls to code. However, the fact that only 14% of the STEM workforce in the UK is made up of women suggests that these measures aren’t having much of an impact.

Why, in the 21st Century, are interesting, fascinating subjects such as these not appealing to female students? Only a quarter of girls aged 8-12 say they know anything about engineering, and those that do say it’s ‘too difficult’ and ‘more for boys’* – evidence to suggest that there is social stigma attached.

As a society, we seem to be investing far more time and money trying to achieve gender equality for adults when we should be addressing the root of the problem and understanding why there’s a gender equality gap to begin with. Are imposed gender stereotypes from a young age the problem?

Although obvious adult gender biases are seen as outrageous in our society (see the very funny responses to the ‘Bic’ pens for women campaign), the gender biases children experience on a daily basis are considered to be harmless and acceptable.

Why is this? As adults we are sensitive to sexism yet the majority of us don’t see a problem in allowing young children to grow up believing that boys and girls are very different.

Do separate toys and games, and comments such as ‘boys will be boys and girls will be girls’ really make sense in a world where we’re striving to achieve gender equality?

To eradicate sexism and close the gender equality gap we need to do more than invest millions of pounds in ways to make life more fair and equal for adults. We need to try and eliminate centuries of cultural conditioning which has made the vast majority of adults and children alike believe that men and women are essentially a different species with completely different interests, rather than people with very similar needs.

See also: The Game That Saves Kittens and Teaches Coding

I believe we don’t recall being treated differently at a young age – let alone consider it damaging – because for the most part, boys and girls are treated differently without even realising it. An example of this sort of conditioning is often seen when parents and teachers unnoticingly encourage girls to internalise their low expectations – by saying things like ‘don’t do that, you’ll get your dress dirty’ and ‘nevermind, you’re better at other subjects’. Girls are brought up to play it safe, whilst boys are often told to ‘try harder’. This conditioning is also present in children’s toys, books, TV shows, games, and the advertising that surrounds us too. Sadly, it makes more sense financially to market cooking sets and princesses to girls, and superheroes and cars to boys.

All you need to do is type ‘Girls’ Toys’ and ‘Boys’ Toys’ into Google and look at the images in the results, to see how apparent and perhaps disturbing this is. You will immediately notice a sea of pink for the girls – cooking sets, dolls houses, makeup kits and barbies. Replace ‘Toys’ with ‘Games’ and the imbalance is even more obvious. Free online games for young girls include ‘Barbie’s Fashion Dream Store’, ‘Miraculous Hero Kiss’ and ‘My Pretty Pedicure’.

See also: The Answer To The Skills Crisis May be More Obvious Than You Think

What can we do to try and solve this problem? Toys that challenge and encourage children without pandering to gender biases is one way. Some great examples of this can be seen with games such as Technology Will Save Us and GoldieBlox.

My team and I have created ‘Erase All Kittens’ (E.A.K.) – a web-based, Mario-style platform game designed to inspire both girls and boys to learn practical coding skills, whilst leveraging their creativity and critical thinking skills at the same time.

In E.A.K., children from the age of eight can edit real code that governs the game’s environment, enabling them to build and fix levels as they play, using the languages HTML and CSS. Our aim is to eliminate the fear that many girls initially have of coding, and empower them with practical skills through a highly gamified and story driven approach. Parents can also spend time playing alongside their children, also providing them with an opportunity to learn.

Interestingly, it’s been found that girls’ grades in science and maths correlate directly with the level of anxiety that they have about those subjects. I believe that gender biases in our society are influencing girls to want to look and be perfect – and perhaps as a result they are not as courageous or willing to try and fail in the same way that boys are. This leads to fewer girls taking an interest in STEM subjects which require those characteristics, in turn leading to less women pursuing careers in these fields.

Gender-biased products are always going to exist – but at least now there are more options. If we truly want girls and boys to grow up to have equal opportunities, it’s essential that we place more importance on treating and encouraging them in a similar way from a young age.

See also: Schools Need To Use Code To Empower, Not To Pigeonhole

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The ‘Lady Geek’ hoping to drive more women to tech

“Girls aren’t cut out for a career in science and technology”. Belinda Parmar has heard this sentence many times. In Britain, only 13 percent of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce is made up of women – a damning figure for a sector reporting talent shortages.

Belinda is the founder of Lady Geek and Little Miss Geek, a campaign which aims to inspire women and girls to become pioneers in technology. Here, she discusses her own experience in the STEM sector, and ways of addressing gender barriers.

Q: Why did you found Little Miss Geek and Lady Geek?

A: I started Lady Geek after a poor experience in a phone shop, when I wanted to buy a new smartphone. The male sales assistant was 15 years younger than me, thought I knew nothing about technology and made me feel alienated because I didn’t know the difference between a terabyte and a megabyte.

So I thought “I can’t be the only woman in Britain who loves technology and doesn’t want to operate in this kind of environment”. I did some research and found that a third of all British women feel patronised by the tech industry.

I then advised major companies a couple of years ago and asked one of them to speak to some of the women making their products (given that 61 percent of their customers are female). To which they responded “well there’s this woman in human resources, or this one who’s a personal assistant”. That pretty much summed up the problem for me.

Q: Although girls perform to the same – if not a higher – level than boys in STEM subjects, a minority go on to pursue or enjoy successful STEM careers. Why is that?

A: The perception of people working in tech is one of geeks who can’t get girlfriends/boyfriends, which has a huge impact on whether girls decide to pursue a career in STEM. One 10-year-old girl I spoke to told me she’d rather be a garbage collector than work in technology.

More than perception though, the gender divide in STEM is due to the tech sector not being inclusive enough, as exemplified by Sir Tim Hunt’s recent comments. [Tim Hunt is a Nobel prize-winning scientist who faced a huge backlash after saying that women in laboratories “fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry”]

Words like these make women feel unwelcome.

Q: What can the STEM sector do about this?

A: Rather than use feminism as a lobbying group to get people fired, we need to use these examples of sexism to our advantage, to raise awareness of the problem. Think of some of the amazing women working in technology, and get them to explain why they – and we – belong in the sector.

Although we have seen a rise in awareness of gender equality issues, this hasn’t yet translated into more women going for a STEM career. The number of women working in the tech sector in the UK has even decreased in the past year.

Q: And do you see a will from policymakers and businesses globally to address this?

A: I do, but initiatives to date to promote gender equality in STEM mostly concern small groups of people, and need to be scaled up to have a bigger impact.

As Suw Charman-Anderson [who founded Ada Lovelace Day, to increase women’s profile in STEM] puts it, the gender equality agenda needs grassroots action and funding through one central body, so that initiatives can be scaled up and transcend national borders.

Q: What can schools – at all levels – do to promote STEM subjects more?

A: Education systems need to demystify STEM and make it about real-world issues. There’s also a psychological aspect to it: women and teenage girls hate to “fail”, even more so publicly. Coding, for instance, is very much about trying over and over again before you find a solution.

You have to give women an environment where they can comfortably “fail”, so that they persevere in the subject. Regardless of your gender or the topic you’re studying, I think schools should focus more on teaching entrepreneurial skills, and less on rote learning.

Q: You mentioned a while ago that you were “done with women-only events that don’t engage men”. How can we do a better job of involving men and boys in the gender equality agenda? Why is it even in their interest to do so?

A: I feel that whether we like it or not, men are running the country – they are, for example, heading up 95 percent of FTSE 100 companies. We can’t change things unless we involve men in the debate, and yet there’s a lot of fear of talking about gender.

I work with many male CEOs who tell me “I want to talk about this issue but I just don’t have the language”. So one of the downfalls, for want of a better word, of feminism is that we’ve created some kind of bubble of fear around the subject.

First we should teach boys and girls empathy skills, which are all about understanding other people and the impact you have on them.

Second, I’d encourage boys to pursue typically female gender roles and vice versa, and not stick within the artificial boundaries of their gender. Ultimately we all benefit from gender equality, be it financially, morally or emotionally.

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