Reading an article in the BBC (Female tech staff ‘in decline’ in the UK – 17 June) this week prompted me to contemplate the much debated topic of why women are not taking over from the men when it comes to IT. After all girls excel at everything else right?
But, I hear you say, you can’t make such a sweeping statement! Let’s look at some school statistics.
- In GCSEs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, girls got more A* and A grades (BBC, Sept 2013)
- Boys perform worse than girls in EVERY school subject – and they have for at least 100 years, claims study following a study of 1.1 million children (Daily Mail, April 2014)
- Girls outperformed boys at Grade A and A* – A-level computing in 2013 (Telegraph, Aug 2013)
So what is holding girls back from dominating IT? To understand the reasons, you have to consider a bigger picture. Not just how IT is taught in schools (and I’ll come onto that) but going right back to what happens from the moment of birth with the constant bombardment of socially constructed gender differences. There is a continual enforcement of gender-appropriate positions for boys and girls that starts with the dressing of girls in pink and boys in blue, through to identification with toys and activities (an ability children can differentiate between from the age of two) to name but a couple of examples which create a clear segregation between socially accepted masculine or feminine behaviours and traits.
Psychologist Sandra Bem explained this gender construction using what she called a ‘gender schema’ arguing that individuals use these culturally produced understandings of gender to make sense of themselves and their behaviour and so this ‘cultural lens’ ensures gender is continuously produced throughout a lifetime. For example, subject choice and achievement in school are a primary example of gendering, often with schools organising and teaching to a curriculum which reinforce this segregation. Children in the UK consistently judge school subjects as masculine or feminine  with girls preferring English and Humanities and boys preferring PE and Science. In other words ‘real men aren’t girly’. There’s some evidence that backs this up, such as the studies of Haywood and Mac an Ghaill, that asserts boys position academic achievement as feminine and conformist and lacking in self-assertion and individuality. Ironically, popular curriculum choice is not so much about the subject itself, but the knowledge and skills and activities that are required by study. In other words, the perception of a school subject and the skills and abilities involved is determined by societal values and understanding of the wider culture using a particular lens of gender. Littleton and Hoyles found that boys are more confident in monopolising space and resources, whereas girls prefer to work collaboratively and creatively, which when you apply to a subject like IT the current method of teaching within the curriculum fits well within masculine identities and may contribute to current dominance of males in the IT industry.
Despite the challenges in the classroom and referring back to my last bullet point above – with results like that and if girls are outperforming boys in computing why is there such an imbalance in the workplace today? Look a little closer at the figures and first impressions are not quite what they appear to be. In 2013 – 3,513 boys sat computing A-level, compared with just 245 girls. And that is a sorry picture indeed.
What can be done to turn the tables?
At an educational and societal level, it is time for dramatic change – I’m not proposing we gender neutralise everything our children are exposed to from birth. But I am an advocate for equality brought about by access to a curriculum and learning that is appropriate and in fact, ironically, recognises differences between the sexes in terms of learning styles by seeking to create an inclusive and supportive network for subject choice. At a work opportunity level, I’m pretty positive about the changes I’ve seen around me over the last couple of years. From a real focus on supporting women in the workplace through our womens business network to role models like one of our own digital experts Maggie Buggie . And I’m pleased to say we are bucking the national IT recruitment trend (around 15% female) with 29% female Graduate/Apprentice/Placement hires for 2013; that’s Grads 38% and Apprentices 19% respectively.
Take the Bem Sex Role Inventory here