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Factors that impact gender balance in computing.

Authors:
  • Raspberry Pi Foundation
Chapter

Factors that impact gender balance in computing.

Abstract

The use of digital technology is pervasive in almost every part of our lives, and careers which require advanced computing skills are amongst the fastest-growing sectors globally. Learning computer science and digital skills offers young people the opportunity of a career in a flourishing sector, yet a lack of gender equity has been identified as a consistent and enduring issue which prevents girls from fully participating in these opportunities. In this short paper, I briefly review what we have learned to date from the literature on gender balance in computing education and outline some of the key barriers to full participation across genders: sense of belonging, relevance to self, and attitudes to technology. The use of collaborative teaching approaches to facilitate engagement and increase gender balance is also highlighted.
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Section 1:
Computing in context
Factors that impact gender balance
in computing
Katharine Childs (Raspberry Pi Foundation, UK)
Childs, K. (2021). Factors that impact gender balance in computing.
In Understanding computing education (Vol 1). Proceedings of the
Raspberry Pi Foundation Research Seminar series.
Available at: rpf.io/seminar-proceedings-2020
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Section 1: Computing in context
Abstract
The use of digital technology is pervasive in
almost every part of our lives, and careers which
require advanced computing skills are amongst
the fastest-growing sectors globally. Learning
computer science and digital skills offers young
people the opportunity of a career in a ourishing
sector, yet a lack of gender equity has been
identied as a consistent and enduring issue
which prevents girls from fully participating in
these opportunities. In this short paper, I briey
review what we have learned to date from the
literature on gender balance in computing
education and outline some of the key barriers
to full participation across genders: sense of
belonging, relevance to self, and attitudes to
technology. The use of collaborative teaching
approaches to facilitate engagement and
increase gender balance is also highlighted.
Introduction
A lack of gender equity in the uptake of both
computing and wider STEM subjects has
been identied as a consistent and enduring
issue (Royal Society, 2017). There has been a
considerable amount of literature published in
the last twenty years that aims to explain why
so few girls choose computing and then outline
theories or interventions that could make a
change to the current educational landscape. In
this paper I reviewed the literature in this area to
identify key factors that inuence gender balance
in computing.
The literature review was conducted with a
search for terms relating to gender balance in
computing to inform the implementation of the
interventions with the most up-to-date evidence.
In order to use robust and rigorous ndings,
only peer-reviewed journal papers or published
conference proceedings were included. The
ACM digital library (dl.acm.org) was selected as
the primary database for the search. The scope
of the literature survey was research published
from January 1995 to June 2020, and included
studies which showed the potential to transfer
from STEM subjects to computing. Research
conducted with university undergraduates as
well as primary and secondary (K-12) pupils were
included to identify any emerging ndings in
higher education which had the potential to be
explored with younger cohorts.
Throughout this report, the term 'gender' is
used as in the following denition: “either of the
two sexes (male and female), especially when
considered with reference to social and cultural
differences rather than biological ones. The term
is also used more broadly to denote a range of
identities that do not correspond to established
ideas of male and female” (Lexico, 2021, para 1).
Attitudes
Many studies have identied gender differences
between learners in their attitudes towards
computing. These attitudes include beliefs
about the type of person who achieves well in
computing, perceptions about the specialist
nature of the subject content, and opinions about
Factors that impact gender balance
in computing
Katharine Childs (Raspberry Pi Foundation, UK)
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the potential for using computing skills in future
careers. In this review, the connections between
attitudes and subject choice will be explored
rst, followed by a more detailed consideration
of the causes and impact of gender differences
in attitudes towards computing.
Learners’ attitudes are dened as the evaluative
judgements which they hold about a curriculum
subject, whether these be positive or negative,
strong or weak, and formed from thoughts,
feelings, or prior experiences (Maio & Haddock,
2009). There are a number of theoretical
frameworks that can be used to understand
students’ attitudes towards computing and how
likely they are to persist in the discipline (Denner
& Campe, 2018). For example, expectancy-value
theory (Eccles et al., 1998) suggests that subject
choice and career goals are affected by the
perceptions that an individual has of parents’
and society’s attitudes towards the subject. If
a female student does not perceive the subject
or career to be valued by others, she is less
likely to value it herself and may focus time and
energy on other subjects which are more highly
valued. Both expectancy-value theory and social
cognitive career theory (Lent et al., 2008) also
highlight the role of a student’s expectations
of success or ‘self-ecacy’ (Bandura, 1999) on
their persistence in computing: students are
more likely to choose computing if they believe
they will succeed and if they have a sense of
support from those around them (Lent et al.,
2008). The theories highlight the importance of
interventions focusing on a range of individual,
environmental, and societal factors to improve
the gender balance in computing.
Attitudes towards a subject can be seen as a
precursor to learners’ motivation to succeed
in them, and this has been notable in the work
of Cheryan et al. (2009) who showed that
when students held a positive attitude towards
computing, they were more likely to be motivated
to participate in further computing study. Wider
research in STEM subjects has also shown
that pupils’ attitudes play an important part in
shaping educational choices. Else-Quest et al.
(2013) found signicant gender differences
in attitude towards mathematics which were
also an accurate predictor of education-related
choices. They suggested that the lower self-
concept reported by girls in mathematics
would reduce the chance of them choosing it
for further study because they did not believe
that they would achieve well. In the context of
computing study, Goode et al. (2018) examined
similar connections with high school computer
science pupils (aged 14 to 18). Through the use
of data drawn from qualitative case studies, they
suggested that female students experienced
an accumulation of negative experiences in
computing classes. They cited examples such as
lack of contextual information to link computing
to the real world and pedagogy without a higher-
order thinking focus which had affected girls’
attitudes towards computing in an unfavourable
way.
There is a clear need to examine more closely
which factors inuence female pupils when they
form opinions about a subject and to identify
possible interventions which will either augment
existing positive connotations about computing
or change attitudes towards the subject by
illuminating new possibilities.
Do I belong?
Girls’ interest and motivation in STEM subjects
can be predicted by their sense of belonging in
the subject. When students attend classes in
subjects they have chosen to study, they create
a group, or community, who are working towards
a common goal to achieve a formal qualication
in that subject. Evidence suggests that a sense
of belonging develops from both the extent to
which girls feel that they t into the community
and also how they perceive that they are
valued and accepted by other members of the
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community (Good et al., 2012). In the workplace,
women’s sense of belonging to computing as
a career is affected by the effort they perceive
they need to exert in order to succeed. Smith
et al. (2013) found that women who worked in
STEM subjects thought that they would have to
expend more effort than others to do well and
suggested that this may affect the extent to
which women feel that they belong in the STEM
eld of careers. Some girls face barriers to taking
part in computing because they feel that they do
not belong there and this can be improved.
Research into increasing girls’ sense of
belonging often draws on theories from the
eld of psychology. An example of this is self-
determination theory (SDT), which suggests
that students have three basic needs in order
to sustain motivation and persistence in any
given subject: competency, autonomy, and
relatedness. Mishkin (2019) applied SDT to
female high school computing students (aged
14 to 18) and found that of the three needs, the
feeling of being related to others was the most
important condition for girls’ motivation to study
computing, and that a sense of belonging was
a signicant predictor of their motivation. This
reinforces the idea that although girls typically
achieve well in computing, they do not choose to
study it because they see themselves as isolated
or unwelcome amongst other computing
students.
This need for a sense of belonging can be
problematic for gender balance in computing
because it creates a repetitive cycle of female
inequity. Girls and women do not see themselves
represented in the eld and are therefore not
motivated to pursue it, which then perpetuates
the lack of representation and means that future
generations do not feel that they t into the
community either. One way of breaking this cycle
is to explicitly call out existing representations
of female computing students or women in
computing careers as role models for the next
generation. The term ‘role model’ is generally
used to describe an individual who displays
behaviour, attitudes, or achievements that can be
emulated by others.
The literature survey revealed considerable
variation amongst studies about the use of
computing role models. Black et al. (2011)
distributed a booklet containing the stories of
successful women in computing to secondary
school pupils in order to inspire and encourage
female students to consider computing as a
career. Role models in this study were presented
as people with achievements that could be
admired and followed. This approach contrasts
markedly with research conducted by Townsend
(1996), who created videos describing the
journey of female undergraduates including how
they had juggled childcare responsibilities and
overcome fears or adversity to achieve success.
In this way, the attitudes, behaviours, and
achievements of the role models were presented
together as a coherent whole. It is dicult to
draw any conclusions on whether one approach
was more effective than the other, as the studies
lacked any commonality in measuring their
outcomes. Black et al. (2011) used a mixed-
methods approach based on qualitative access
gures and quantitative teacher feedback,
whereas Townsend (1996) used quantitative
data sampled from undergraduate students
to compare between a control and treatment
group. The variety of evaluation methods used
highlights the importance of careful trial design
in order to effectively and condently measure
the impact of an intervention.
A variety of places to nd role models was
also highlighted in the literature. A common
theme was to introduce a gender-balanced
group of undergraduate students to primary and
secondary pupils, either to teach computing
lessons or to speak about their experiences.
Such an approach was found to help pupils
perceive computing as a subject that was
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equally dicult for girls as well as boys (Zaidi
et al., 2017) and to increase girls’ self-ecacy
in computing (Lang, et al., 2010). This approach
was tested on a small scale due to the logistical
practicalities of matching students with
classrooms in both studies. It contrasts with the
larger-scale research conducted by Black et al.
(2011) which drew on role models from history,
workplaces, and classrooms, as well as rst-
person accounts to create a booklet for mass
distribution. As mentioned previously, the variety
of research design, tools, and instruments in
these studies means it is dicult to draw any
conclusions about whether any approach was
more effective than another. Further research
could provide insight into this through the use of
a scalable trial design and a reliable, validated
evaluation instrument.
Young people choose their own role models;
teachers cannot choose role models for them.
There is also a gender difference to take into
account, wherein female students choose role
models with a higher number of self-perceived
likenesses to themselves than male students do
(Wohlford et al., 2004). It was notable that self-
esteem was also a predictor of female students’
chosen role models. This suggests that some
high-achieving role models may provide the
opposite effect from that which was intended,
and deter girls from emulating the individual
because they feel that the achievements are too
far out of reach. At the other extreme, if girls
select role models based on perceived likeness,
they may focus on the people around them, such
as friends and family, and this may not provide
them with any examples of women in computing
at all.
There have been investigations in other STEM
subjects relating to the inuence of role models
on girls’ attitudes towards the subject. One very
recent study looks at the effects of a role-model
intervention in maths with girls aged 12 to 16
years old. It links to Eccles’ (1998) expectancy-
value theory to measure the effect that the
intervention had on girls’ personal enjoyment
of maths and the importance they attached to
maths. The intervention provided a signicant
increase in both enjoyment and importance, and
the authors concluded that it was important
to introduce such interventions at a relatively
young age before pupils begin to make specialist
academic choices (Gonzalez et al., 2020).
Children and young people are also inuenced
by parents and other family members when
they make choices. Eccles’ (1998) expectancy-
value theory also states that young people’s
attitudes towards a subject are inuenced by
their perceptions of the values their parents have
about that subject. Where parents are seen to
support their children’s choices in computing,
girls are more likely to express interest in
computing as a career (Creamer et al., 2004;
Denner, 2011). Some parents may hold less
traditional attitudes about gender roles and
have daughters who are more likely to pursue
nontraditional careers such as computing (Chhin
et al., 2008). There is room to further explore the
role that parental encouragement plays based
on evidence which suggests that interventions
based on positive messaging from parents show
a positive inuence on their children’s attitudes
(Kraft & Rogers, 2014).
There is still some ambiguity in the literature
around the effects that role-model interventions
and parental encouragement have on girls’
attitudes towards computing. Although studies
have provided evidence of their effectiveness on
a small scale with innovative approaches, there
are still questions to be addressed around both
intervention design and trial methodology. Future
research could explore the impact of parental
encouragement and the impact of introducing
role models on girls’ sense of belonging in
computing.
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Relevance to me
The use of technology is pervasive in almost
every aspect of our daily lives. This provides
opportunities for educators to show how
studying computing can be relevant for many
jobs and careers and, specically, how learning
computer science skills can be applied to
everyday situations. Learning to program then
moves away from acquiring the skills to write
code towards the ability to be able to create
authentic applications such as games, stories,
and mobile phone apps that can be used outside
of the classroom in the real world (Kafai & Burke,
2013).
Computer science can be perceived as a very
abstract subject, in which there is a great deal
to learn about programming concepts in order
to use them to eciently write code. However,
Fisher and Margolis (2003) identied that the
contexts in which computer science skills can be
used are important for female students. Through
a series of longitudinal surveys, they observed
gender differences in students’ motivations for
studying computer science at university. Female
undergraduates were much more likely to identify
links between their learning and other disciplines,
whereas male students were more invested in
the value of computer science as a subject in
itself. Subsequent studies have drawn on this
nding to explore a variety of different ways to
introduce real-world contexts into computing
lessons.
Four principles were proposed by Guzdial and
Tew (2006) to contextualise computing so that
students could connect their learning to their
prior experiences and future expectations:
1. Learning activities were aligned with real-
world scenarios
2. Topics were aligned with students’ own
interests
3. Assessments were aligned with the material
which had been taught
4. The methods of inquiry used in the
classroom were aligned with professional
standards in the workplace
The rst and second of these principles were
applied to two introductory programming
modules for undergraduates which situated
learning to program in the contexts of media
manipulation and computer-generated
animation sequences. Guzdial and Tew (2006)
hypothesised that students would perceive the
course to be of value because of the explicit
links to real-world scenarios. Although they
did not specically set out to create a learning
experience which would appeal to female
students, it is notable that when averaged out
over several presentations of the modules, 51%
of students were female, which reinforces the
ndings from Fisher and Margolis (2003).
Subsequent studies have explored further
ways that computing can be made relevant by
introducing the idea that computing is a tool for
bringing societal benets to others. Dewitt et al.
(2017) built upon the links between programming
and media generation in a project for boys and
girls at a summer camp, where they were tasked
with creating a piece of artwork to address a
social issue. This led to a positive increase in
attitudes towards computing amongst both boys
and girls. This nding seems to contrast with a
study that compared university student opinions
about humanitarian contexts, practical contexts,
and games-based contexts in computer science
courses (Rader et al., 2011). When asked to rank
assignments in order of preference, students
preferred assignments using games-based
contexts. However, the authors do acknowledge
the very low number of female students amongst
the respondents and so greater value may be
found in Rader et al.’s (2011) nding that 79%
of students expressed a positive opinion about
programming assignments which showed how
computer science could benet society.
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Finally, computing is not just relevant in social
contexts. Franklin et al. (2011) explored how
learning to program could be made culturally-
relevant for middle school students in the
US. Using the theme of Animal Tlatoque, they
successfully recruited a group of students who
were previously unengaged in computer science,
and subsequently found that this small group
(n=34) became more interested in computing as
a career and were more likely to view computing
as a subject for girls.
The variety of approaches taken within the
literature towards dening relevant computing
contexts is perhaps indicative of the lack of
depth in computer science education research to
date. It is entirely plausible that in order to situate
learning about computing in a relevant way to
interest girls, an approach which draws upon the
deeper insights from research into other STEM
subjects is needed. Lyons (2006) recommended
that science curricula were more likely to interest
girls if they provided opportunities for genuine
inquiry, involved real-world experience and
integrated social and scientic issues, as well
as opportunities for experimentation, practice,
reection, and conceptualisation. Thinking
about computing, the relevance of the subject in
society and the opportunity to apply computing
skills to solve real-world problems need to be
carefully embedded within a curriculum so
that girls can see that computer science has
many potential applications in future study and
careers.
Learning together
An emerging body of evidence suggests that
collaborative teaching approaches can engage
more girls with computing. This is of particular
interest when learning to write computer
programs, which can be seen as the most
dicult section of the computing curriculum for
learners (Kallia & Sentance, 2018). Introducing
a shared, group approach requires a shift from
traditional computing pedagogy. Learning to
code changes from a series of tasks undertaken
by individuals, to a sociocultural experience in
which students work together to create and
share digital content (Kafai & Burke, 2013). The
initial inspection of the research and subsequent
literature survey found evidence to support two
collaborative teaching approaches in learning to
program which merited further investigation: pair
programming and peer instruction.
Pair programming
The idea of writing computer programs in pairs
has been directly drawn from industry, where
colleagues often work in partnership to write
and review code in order to maximise the quality
and design of a program (McDowell et al.,
2006). Transferring a workplace practice into a
classroom teaching approach offers pupils an
authentic experience of real-world programming.
The idea of paired work is commonly used in
many other subjects, where pupils discuss
ideas or contribute towards a shared piece
of work. Pair programming differs from other
paired work as it has a dened structure. In
pair programming, one student takes the role
of ‘driver’ and has control of the keyboard and
mouse to write the code. The other student is
the ‘navigator’ who reads out the instructions
and monitors the code for errors (McDowell et
al., 2006). The teacher’s role includes training
the students in successful pair interactions and
ensuring the pairs rotate after a given time so
that each student experiences both roles. The
success of pair interactions is actively managed
by the teacher as well as being evaluated by the
pairs themselves (Williams et al., 2008).
Werner et al. (2004) advocated for the use of
pair programming in introductory university
programming courses based on their ndings
that collaborative work had a positive impact on
female students’ perceptions of computing as
a subject for further study. Pair programming
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has been shown to improve student condence
and have a positive impact on student retention
in computing and has also demonstrated
that the quality of programs written in pairs
is signicantly higher than those written
individually in an introductory undergraduate
course (McDowell et al., 2006). Similar ndings
in K-12 (primary and secondary) environments
demonstrated that pair programming generally
increased pupil attitudes and condence towards
computing (Denner et al., 2014). This suggests
that using pair programming has potential to be
used as an inclusive pedagogy to benet girls’
perceptions of computing, whilst also supporting
all learners to develop skills and knowledge of
programming concepts.
Further research has explored different
approaches to pairing pupils along with how
those pairs might affect the interactions which
take place between partners. A small-scale study
from Tsan et al. (2016) suggested that by the
age of 11, all-female pairings were producing
signicantly lower program quality than mixed
or all-boy pairs. However, this study was limited
in focus and only assessed the quality of the
completed artefact rather than pedagogy
required to promote high-quality outcomes.
Ruvalcaba et al. (2016) noted that ethnicity
of pairs may affect the types of interaction
between pairs, with Latina/o students more
likely to use non-verbal communication signals
to interact with their partner whereas white
and mixed student pairs relied more on verbal
communication to check understanding. Both
studies indicate that pair programming requires
careful training of teachers to ensure that the
whole pedagogy is understood and applied,
without bias.
The use of pair programming as a teaching
approach in schools is likely to appeal to girls,
and make them more likely to both choose a
subject and achieve well in it. Further research
can help strengthen the evidence of how to
effectively pair pupils, provide guidance to
teachers on the characteristics of successful
pairings, and demonstrate the value of this
pedagogy within the specic context of the
English school system.
Peer instruction
The idea of working together with peers to build
knowledge has been explored in the literature
relating to both computing and wider STEM
subjects.
Peer instruction is an approach which was
developed by Mazur (1997) through a series of
studies conducted with physics undergraduates.
In these studies, peer instruction was positioned
as a pedagogy to help students understand
dicult concepts through classroom interaction.
Lessons were structured around a series of
multiple choice questions (MCQs) which the
teacher could devise to stimulate discussion
around physics concepts. These concepts would
be rst of all introduced using an instructor-led
presentation, followed by a series of MCQs which
students could answer with electronic clickers or
ashcards (Vickrey et al., 2015). The instructor
assessed the understanding of the class through
the MCQ scores and chose to briey recap the
answer if a large proportion of class understood,
or else to initiate paired or group discussion of
the question so that students could evaluate the
options presented and work out which one was
correct together (Watkins & Mazur, 2013).
Watkins and Mazur (2013) highlighted that
the use of peer instruction in introductory
STEM courses led to increased retention of
students in STEM disciplines during subsequent
intermediate and advanced courses. The authors
proposed several reasons for this improvement.
First, the pedagogy included inherent formative
assessment and so instructors were better
able to adapt their teaching to meet student
needs. Secondly, students responded well to the
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opportunity to interact and discuss with their
peers, and developed their uency in explaining
scientic concepts. Finally, an additional
outcome was to increase student self-ecacy,
which promoted a positive attitude towards
further study of STEM courses. A separate study
conducted in an introductory physics course at
Harvard University investigated the effect of peer
instruction on student achievement (Lorenzo
et al., 2006). An intervention which used peer
instruction was delivered to 1,048 physics
students and was evaluated qualitatively using
pre- and post-tests. A statistically signicant
gender gap in the pre-instruction test scores was
reported following the intervention, and Lorenzo
et al. (2006) attributed this to the interactive and
collaborative nature of the teaching approach
which helped to create a classroom environment
that supported both genders.
Although research on collaborative teaching
approaches and gender balance is as yet limited,
the research to date signals this as a worthwhile
area to explore further.
Discussion
The literature discussed here describes an
accumulation of historical, social, and cultural
barriers faced by girls in the computing
classroom which have developed alongside the
growth of computing as a subject in schools.
The concept of an incredible shrinking pipeline
(Camp, 2002) has been used to describe the
decreasing number of girls involved in each
stage of computing education. However, it has
been noted that there are too few girls entering
the pipeline of computing qualications initially,
and so it would seem insucient to direct efforts
into research that aims to retain female students
from GCSE through to A level and beyond. This
report recommends building on research which
presents computing as an equitable subject
that is relevant, applicable, and achievable to
all pupils, regardless of gender. Because pupils
make subject choices in England at the relatively
young age of 14, a range of interventions in both
primary and secondary phases are suggested in
order to present computing as a subject where
girls can succeed.
This review has underlined the importance of
girls’ attitudes towards computing and their
motivations for studying the subject. As with
other STEM subjects, computing has acquired
an image of being a subject which is taken by
‘geeky’ students to be used in a very specialist
way in jobs and careers (Creamer et al., 2004).
Whereas other sciences have had to unpick
layers of inequity which have built up over
decades, computing is a relatively young subject
and this offers the opportunity to identify robust
changes which can be made rapidly to alter the
gender imbalance currently seen in the subject.
It has been highlighted that the sociocultural
context of learning computing appears to play an
important role in shaping girls’ attitudes (Denner,
2011; Kafai & Burke, 2013). Underpinning
research with learning science theories relating
to attitudes, beliefs, and motivation can provide
a rigorous approach to measuring changes in
attitude. Much of the initial work to explore girls’
attitudes towards computing and identify the
obstacles which prevent them from participating
in the eld has been conducted in the US (e.g.
Fisher & Margolis, 2003) where girls are similarly
underrepresented in computing study and
careers.
What next?
The Gender Balance in Computing project has
been funded by the Department for Education
in England from 2019 to 2022 to examine the
key factors affecting pupil attitudes towards
computing early in their education, and to
identify promising approaches which have the
potential to be delivered at scale in a wide variety
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10
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