On a mission to get more girls and women into computing

Jackie Galbraith is Vice Principal for Strategy, Planning and Performance at Ayrshire College. She started her career in computing in 1988 as a programmer in the manufacturing industry. Here, she reflects on this week’s activity around International Girls in ICT Day.

Spotlight on women in computing

Ayrshire College is on a mission to challenge gender stereotypes in career and learning choices!

We take every opportunity to encourage females into male-dominated subjects and they don’t come much more male-dominated than computing! For example, each year we run a week-long campaign around Girls in ICT Day to promote and encourage women in and into computing. This year, throughout the week we heard from women who have forged a career in computing – in industry from Maggie Morrison, Caroline Stuart and Jean McInnes; and in education from Loraine Johnston and Lynsey O’Connor. Maggie, Caroline and Jean highlighted the variety of jobs they have had throughout their careers in computing and the many benefits they have experienced like travel, high salaries and flexibility. We also showcased women at the start of their careers in ICT – 19 year old apprentice Lisa Watson, as well as Ayrshire College mature students Jean Anderson and Carol Maguire, who talked about the life-changing possibilities offered by a career in ICT.

Throughout my technical career, I was completely unaware that women had played pioneering roles in the history of computing. When I was doing my degree in the 1980s, I was introduced to programming languages like Ada and Cobol but had no idea of their association with female computing pioneers! Our first blog post this week introduced readers to Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, a couple of the forgotten women in computing. In her blog post, Dr Hannah Dee reminded us that until the 1970s computing attracted equal numbers of men and women.

It was good to see media coverage during the week about a forthcoming comic book about Ada Lovelace by graphic artist and illustrator Sydney Padua. Padua uses her humour and art to demonstrate the extraordinary contribution of a young woman born 200 years ago, long before the first computer was invented! Find out more at  http://www.biography.com/news/ada-lovelace-facts-book-sydney-padua. It was also good to learn about another connection between art and computing with 22 year old fashion model Karlie Kloss who aspires to be a computer programmer. Listen to Karlie here http://youtu.be/Bwiln7v0fdc.

Coding for girls

Hannah Dee, Maggie Morrison and Caroline Stuart all talked in their blog posts about the declining numbers of women who choose to study or work in computing. Hannah described some of the activity taking place across the UK with schools to stimulate and maintain interest in computing amongst young people, particularly girls. CoderDojo is part of a global network of free computer coding clubs for young people. With no coding experience necessary, the club aims to promote computer science and technology in a fun, thought-provoking and inspiring way, encouraging young people to consider studying computing and recognise the rewarding opportunities available in the rapidly expanding ICT industry. Building on a strong partnership with CoderDojo Scotland, Ayrshire College hosted two all-girls computer coding clubs this week. One was an after-school club for first year pupils (12 year olds) at Irvine Royal Academy; the other took place at the college with primary school girls. Here’s what some of the girls had to say:

13 year old Irvine Royal Academy pupil, Carmen Wilson said “I was never really into computing before, but the CoderDojo club made it fun and interesting.”

8 year old Mia Hay from Dunlop said “I loved it, it was really cool. I want to come back!”

There is no doubt that there is real enthusiasm and interest amongst girls at an early age – we need to tap into that enthusiasm and find ways of translating that interest into more girls choosing computing subjects at school, college and university. However, there are some obstacles to overcome.


Look out for unconscious bias

In his blog post, Colin Crook talked about unconscious bias and the risks of unintentionally reinforcing negative stereotypes about men and women in computing. In the week that Microsoft pledged its support to the CoderDojo Foundation as part of its YouthSpark initiative, it was disappointing that a well-intentioned video used to promote coding clubs reinforced the male stereotype associated with computing (http://youtu.be/2n7dYz9E7Io). Of the 25 people interviewed in this video – young people, teachers, technologists and politicians – only 3 were female! This unconscious bias perpetuates the myth that ‘computing’s not for me’.

Converting initiatives into systemic change

I started in computing nearly 30 years ago at a time when women had started to abandon computing. In the three decades since then there have been waves of initiatives to attract girls and women into IT – thousands of well-meaning initiatives, yet the proportion of women in computing is at its lowest level since the 1970s. If we really want to tackle the lack of girls and women in STEM, we need to focus on systemic, cultural change that builds on the many good initiatives. This is the approach Ayrshire College plans to take.

Watch this space!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s