This week while I was in Germany training British Services teachers, I received a phone call from a researcher on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, ultimately inviting me to speak live on the programme. As you can imagine, I was delighted to be invited since I’ve been trying to raise the profile of girls in Computing in school. My next step was to send a message to my wife, “I know you’ll never believe me – but I’ve been asked to appear on Woman’s Hour.” She replied with “But you’re a man – I’m the one with a degree in Women’s Studies” which made me smile.
For practical reasons, I had to decline the invitation. However, it has certainly made me think again and review what I have been doing. When training other teachers or speaking at conferences, I am often asked “Alan, how do you encourage more girls into computing?“. I wonder at the same time if ballet teachers are having similar discissions about how to encourage more boys into ballet?
Two years ago when I introduced GCSE Computing at my school, I was appalled that not one single girl chose to study it at GCSE. I resolved to do a lot about this. Around the same time, two girls from my Year 9 class (14 yrs old) won a national coding competition. When presenting them with the good news and their prizes, I asked them if they would help me set up a computing club in school where girls would feel more welcome. They nearly ran away screaming. “We’re not like that – we’re just girls. Can we just have our prizes and go?” was the reply. Depressed by their response, I then went on to try a number of different intiatives that just didn’t seem to work.
In February 2012 we held our Hack To The Future event. During the planning stages, I tried desparately to find positive female role models to help make the ideas of girls in tech and computing seem more normal. A number of individuals and organisations were terrific in their support, Samantha Bail, Manchester Girl Geeks, Sarah Carswell, Kate Norman, Jo Claessens, Zoe Breen, BBC R&D and BBC Learning. Alarmingly, a number of the females I invited to speak or present told me that they were not sure they were qualified enough for the role.
In my current GCSE Computing class, I now have 3 girls – so it’s hardly a revolution, but it’s a start. When I asked them what made them choose computing they speak fondly of their experience at Hack To The Future. In the film that the BBC commisioned about the event, there are many girls speaking enthusiastically about computing and tech.
In all of the events that I organise, including Raspberry Jams, Raspberry Jamboree and Hack To The Future events, I go out of my way to seek positive female role models. I don’t go out with a specific ratio or a quota in mind. I think if I did, I would have to cancel some of the events. Instead, I now seek to encourage mums and sons, dads and daughters to come and learn together.
My formula is simple, I’ve just made an extra effort to find examples of girls, ladies, females doing something amazing and then found an opportunity to celebrate that. Often I don’t have to look hard to find some, but I have found in my experience that many females are less likely to ‘blow their own trumpet’ about how great their work is. The girls I teach at GCSE are few in number, but they are amazingly resourceful, creatively talented and excellent self-organisers. I believe that as other girls and boys see these girls that in time, it will become to seem more normal.
There are many more initiatives I have tried, some have failed and others succeeded, but I imagine you’re losing interest by now.
I have a great amount of respect for the efforts of others in doing what they can to try to redress these outmoded stereotypes. I’m just not sure that I agree completely that a positive discrimination policy is an effective solution. This issue is not confined to just this sector of tech and computing but applies in many others. In our school there is one boy in the GCSE Textiles class and 3 boys in the GCSE Food class. I wonder if as a society we should question whether we celebrate the differences between male and female or seek to remove and reduce them. When I stand up on the bus to offer my seat to a lady or hold the door open for a female colleague, am I being courteous, chivalrous or disrespectful to men?
I think it’s wonderful that Women’s Hour are giving this debate some airtime, and I look forward with anticipation to the programme and the debate that follows. If we are going to bring about change, it’s important that we all work together on this and properly analyse the problem. Listen to Amy Mather talk about girl geeks, Python and Raspberry Pi and then Dr Tom Crick and Aral Balkan on the lack of female speakers at tech conferences.