How can we get more women into computer programming? It’s a field which has a very male, geeky image, but web development instructor Kate Farrell says that much of its image is built on misconceptions.
For one, it is not about being great at maths or being ultra-brainy, although you do need to be a problem solver, she says. Another misconception is that computer people are all anti-social geeks. In fact, says Kate, they tend to work in teams and are very sociable, bouncing ideas off each other. Programming also lends itself well to flexible working – not just in terms of hours, but location. Plus there is a skills shortage so employees have an upper hand when negotiating terms and conditions. It is also hugely creative and people can mix skills to great effect, for instance, graphic design and coding. “When you combine coding with your existing skills it becomes really powerful,” says Kate.
She works for CodeClan, Scotland’s first coding bootcamp. One of their aims is to increase the number of women getting into the coding industry – 25% of the people who go on their bootcamps are women which is higher than the industry average of around 16%. Kate says the numbers of women in computing are pretty much level across the board – around 17% of those doing computer science at school and university are female, despite the fact that they do better at computing than boys, and around 17% of the IT industry are women. “Primary school is where we need to go,” says Kate. “By secondary school it’s too late.” That is where she has been focusing her attention, particularly on curriculum changes that introduce new ways to get children interested in computer science.
She adds that there is a problem in general in attracting more young people into IT despite the fact that there are so many jobs available in computing. “If we get all young people involved in coding then the ones with a passion for it will come through,” she says.
The introduction of apps and gadgets which require a knowledge of coding has given extra momentum to those promoting the importance of learning coding, as have movements such as Code.org which holds live coding events.
A societal problem
Kate says that it is ironic that girls – and women – are less likely to be working in computer science when, historically, they were more likely to be involved with computer programming as it was deemed a secretarial-type job. That all changed when computers became cheap enough for people to have at home. “It’s not a gender thing,” she says, “it’s a society problem that we view computing as a male thing. We need to change. All young people need to think it is for them.”
One problem for school-aged children, she says, is that people think young people are all computer-literate because they are on social media all the time. “There’s a big difference between social media and programming,” says Kate. She adds that some coding courses aimed at kids only scratch the surface and don’t teach them to programme.
The people on the CodeClan course are all over 18 and they come from a broad range of backgrounds, from teachers and careers advisers to people working in retail and in catering. Kate says they are looking for the intellectual challenge involved in learning computational thinking and coding skills. She adds that they are not easy skills to learn, saying: “Part of the challenge is failing.” She believes anyone can learn coding, but only some will have an aptitude for it.
Getting into coding
Kate is developing a list of online resources to help people start their coding journey so they can try coding out before attending a course like the CodeClan bootcamp. The accredited course lasts 16 weeks and involves instruction from real software developers as well as trips to careers fairs and businesses to talk about jobs. There is also a chance to do a project which can be presented to potential employers. The first cohort completed the course only a month ago and the majority already have jobs. The course also counts as a credit towards a full degree so those take part can develop their skills further if they wish to.
It is not just those who want a career in programming who can benefit from coding knowledge, though, says Kate. For people running their own businesses, there are big advantages to learning about programming, even if not to degree level. “If you understand it you run less risk of being ripped off and do not have to rely on taking experts’ word for it. You know better how long, for instance, setting up a website should take and how much it should cost and what is possible. You know how to customise things on the website and don’t have to pay out every time you want to change something small. It is empowering,” she says.