Change the Culture to Change Their Minds: How to Get High School Girls into Computer Science Classes

As girls advance through school they become less and less interested in technology, cutting themselves off from a number of potentially lucrative and interesting career opportunities. At the same time technology companies effectively lose half of the pool of talented workers that they depend on to grow and prosper.

When girls reach high school, there is a drastic drop off in their interest in technology and computer science. Howe, et al., found that in middle school a fourth of the twenty nine girls interviewed planned on pursuing a career in computer science or engineering. When interviewed them again in high school, only one was interested in a career in information technology. Howe et al. notes that some of the girls were simply not interested, but “a third of the students (9 out of 29) were put off by what they believe the work of a computer scientist to be. The prevailing image of a computer scientist is a person whose life is spent in a cubicle in a large office, spending long hours working alone with a computer, in a job that is not creative and not people-oriented” (2005, p. 58). While most of the middle school girls—ninety percent—expressed interest in learning more about computers in high school, once they reached high school only five of the twenty nine had taken or were taking a computer science class. The reasons for not taking a computer science class were: there was not room in their schedule, they were not aware a computer science class was available, there was no class available, they had no interest in computer science, and they presumed that the class would be difficult (Howe et al., 2005, p. 57).

I propose a change in the way high school computer science (CS) classes are taught. This could lead to an increase in female CS majors in college, as well as females in technology jobs after graduation. I would like to create an environment in high school computer science classrooms that is inviting, not only to girls, but to anyone who does not know much about computer science. CS teachers will not only focus on teaching coding, but also showing students what they can do with computer science so that girls see CS as an interactive and creative career that can help change the world. At the very least, if girls are enjoying themselves in computer science classes, then they will continue to take them and learn more about computers and coding. Even if they do not go into a technology career, they will have a skill set that will be beneficial to them when they are applying to jobs in any field.

Cheryan et al. looked at common preconceived notions about computer scientists, which may deter females from wanting to become CS majors. One of these stereotypes is that computer scientists, and especially male computer scientists, are more intelligent than average people. Both male and female students share the assumption that male computer scientists have a higher GPA than female computer scientists, though there is no evidence for this (Cheryan et al., 2013, p. 60). Women also generally “have less confidence in their computer aptitude than do men. As a result, some women, even those qualified to enter the field, may assume they are not intellectually equal to those already in computer science and may be reluctant to enter the field” (Cheryan et al., 2013, p. 60).

Based on this stereotype I believe high school girls are less likely to sign up for a CS class because they think they will be bad at computer science before they have even tried it. They also may be deterred from taking a CS class because they are worried they will be the only female in a class full of unsociable males who are already knowledgeable about computer science and coding. To attract more girls to computer science classes I think it is important to create an environment that actively fights these stereotypes. On the first day of class, the teacher should tell the class it is okay for them to fail. Creating an environment that encourages failure also encourages creativity. If students know that is it okay if their code does not do what it is supposed to do, they are more likely to try new things, think creatively, and feel less stressed about their assignments. Of course, this also comes with the stipulation that students must try, but if their hard work and best efforts do not work out, then they still get points for trying.

Teachers should create an environment where students feel like they can ask questions. Maria Klawe has spent her time as president of Harvey Mudd College changing the culture of science and engineering so that these fields are more appealing to women and minorities. She says: “Asking for help is something I’m really pushing right now because probably the most important thing you can learn in college is how to learn. And one of the aspects of learning is knowing how to ask for help and how to work with other people” (Hoffmann, 2012, p. 119). Klawe’s focus is on college classrooms, but I believe using her methods at the high school level will be just as effective, if not more so since the stereotypes about computer scientists have had less time to sink in. This will create an environment in college CS classes that is even more conducive to asking questions because this kind of behavior will be taught from an even younger age.

Another prevailing stereotype is that computer scientists lack interpersonal skills and are socially awkward. Cheryan notes that “this stereotype has been endorsed by undergraduates and by high school students in the UK and even middle school students are aware of this stereotype. Stereotypes that computer scientists lack interpersonal skills can be contrasted with expectations that women are socially competent and people-oriented” (2013, p. 60). Schools must encourage collaboration to fight the stereotype that computer scientists are loners. Encouraging students to share their ideas with one other and work together to execute those ideas not only shows students that CS is collaborative, but can also make students more comfortable with each other which can lead to shier, less experienced students feeling more confident speaking out. This is also a chance for more experienced coders to team up with less experienced coders, not only to help them, but also to help foster an environment that is supportive of students with less CS knowledge. However, it is important to pay attention to these interactions and make sure the students with more experience are actually helping the less experienced students and not just doing the project themselves or making the less experienced student feel bad for not understanding something.

It is also important to prevent imposter syndrome. Klawe defines imposter syndrome as the idea that “you’re actually doing fine, but you have the impression that you don’t understand the material as well as others around you” (Hoffmann, 2012, p. 119). There are bound to be people in any computer science class that have been playing with computers from a very young age and may already be knowledgeable on the subject matter of an entry level CS class. A high school female who has no knowledge of computer science may be intimidated and feel like she is the only one in class who does not know what they are doing. The stereotype that computer scientists are hyper-intelligent, as well as the fact that “women have less confidence in their computer aptitude than do men” (Cheryan et al., 2013, p. 60) can cause a heightened sense of imposter syndrome. It is important to take these knowledgeable students aside and—without discouraging them—let them know that there are students in the class who do not know as much as they do and need a bit more time and explanation to understand the material. It might also help to give them the chance to be peer leaders or tutors to students who may be struggling. This gives them the change to cultivate the knowledge they already have while allowing the less experienced students to participate more and get help from their peers.

Putting an emphasis on what can be done with computer science can not only spark the interest of more females, but can also encourage more girls to stick with computer science classes. Use entry level computer science classes to show that coding and technology can be used to create new things and change the world. Showing students that there is an end game to learning code can be encouraging because they become aware of the purpose behind what they are learning. Knowing that a line of code can make a big difference can make the frustration in how meticulous coding can be, worth it.

While I have argued for these practices in the context of high school computer science classes, they can—and should—be implemented at every stage of CS education. Even the most experienced coder can feel imposter syndrome and everyone needs help from their peers every once in a while. These methods are also directed towards getting more girls into computer science, but they are also helpful in getting minorities, or anyone who does not think coding is something they would be good at, into computer science classrooms. “The Department of Labor predicts the nation will add 1.2 million new computer-science-related jobs by 2022, we’re graduating proportionately fewer computer science majors than we did in the 1980s, and the number of students signing up for Advanced Placement computer science has flatlined” (Raja, 2014). With so many technology jobs available and so few people to fill them, we should be doing everything we can to encourage all people to become code-literate. These methods will hopefully create more interest in computer science in high schools and the culture created in these classrooms will hopefully carry over into college CS classes and the workplace. While these tactics are designed to get girls into computer science classes, I believe they will also help with retaining women in the technology workplace.

Works Cited

Cheryan, S, & Plaut, V, & Handron, C, & Hudson, L. (2013, June 22). The Stereotypical Computer Scientist: Gendered Media Representations as a Barrier to Inclusion for Women. Sex Roles, 69, 58-71.

Hoffmann, L. (2012, September). What Women Want. Communications of the ACM, 55, 119-120.

Howe, A, & Berenson, S, & Vouk, M. (2005). Changing the High School Culture to Promote Interest in Information Technology Careers Among High Achieving Girls. In Proceedings of the Crossing Cultures, Changing Lives International Research Conference, 51-63.

Raja, T. (2014). We Can Code It!: Why computer literacy is key to winning the 21st century. In Mother Jones. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/media/2014/06/computer-science-programming-code-diversity-sexism-education

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