Girls and tech

Why are there so few women going into careers in technology and what role do the early years in school play?

 

How can we get more girls interested in careers in tech or AI? I was at an employer roundtable on women in technology yesterday and outreach to schools was one of the areas discussed. One of the participants said her teenage daughter was leaning more towards the arts despite all her efforts to get her interested in technology.

I don’t have a technology background, but I’m very much aware of the dearth of women in the tech sector. None of my three daughters has shown the slightest interest in a career in technology to date, although they are always on their phones or on a computer. They all lean very much towards the arts.

Daughter one did Biology for International Baccalaureate, but regrets it now. Daughter two has Chemistry and Physics to end off this week’s GCSEs. She says she doesn’t care about them and will drop them as soon as she can. Daughter three just turns her nose up when any type of maths or science is mentioned.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to interest them over the years. I’ve taken them to science festivals and talks and the like. I’ve bigged up algebra. I’ve spoken about the need for girls to do science and tech and the earnings gap if they don’t. But perhaps I haven’t truly lived my words because, I, like them, am very much on the arts side, as is my partner who says his maths knowledge stops at around the age of nine. Perhaps I have shown slightly more interest in arts-based homework because I relate to it better, for instance, although, to be fair, most of the project work in primary school seems to be arts and humanities-based – castles, kings and queens, ancient Egyptians and the Stone Age. The closest we’ve got to science is the legendary Fruits Galore! game we designed for a healthy eating project…Perhaps getting parents more involved in science-based homework would be educational all round.

Despite what may be a bias towards the arts, however, only son is fast developing into the family’s go-to tech guru. I brought him to the office the other day and the first thing he noticed was the laptops everyone had. Not only did he know the make, but also the model and the individual features. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of apple products. He has even made every single one out of paper [“It’s the closest thing I’ll come to owning one, mum,” he says at part of his ongoing tech campaign. I tell him to try entering some competitions…].He is very much into maths and does extra sums whereas daughter two struggled to master odds and evens at the age of eight. And yet, when I asked him about science he said he wasn’t interested in it either and he added that what he likes about technology is what you can do with it – making videos and the like – and what it looks like, not how it is put together.

Focusing on what you can do with it and design is important though, but to do that you surely need to understand a little bit about how it works…Maybe teaching needs to tap more into arts-oriented kids’ enthusiasm for doing to drive understanding.

Confidence

I asked daughter two what it was about maths that she didn’t like. “Some people think it is beautiful,” I added for good measure. “I’m just not good at it,” she said. Perhaps it was my fault. Had I made her early struggles with maths worse by doing extra homework to get her to understand odds and evens? “I just don’t like subjects where there is only one right answer,” she added.

Daughter two thinks laterally and visually, skills we will very much need in the future. Her bedroom is a work in progress. She has never viewed the world logically. I remember her teacher asking her what she was thinking, aged six, when she stared into space. “I am imagining what would happen if I was a giant strawberry. Would you eat me?” she replied. Not exactly 3 + 4 = 7. I have emphasised that creative thinking is important in science, just as it is in other subjects. You just need to master the basic foundations, but she glazes over.

Daughter one is interested in science, but only in a philosophical sense. Daughter three’s time at school has been blighted by bullying so her main focus is on not panicking in any given social situation. She also doesn’t feel confident in science and maths, in part because she has missed potentially important parts of the syllabus whereas she is ahead in languages because of early exposure.

Confidence has got to be key. If you don’t think you are good at a subject, you are surely less likely to enjoy it and that becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. The early days are crucial. If you miss just one step in maths, the rest becomes more difficult to grasp.

There are clearly many different factors – role models, the way the subject is taught, etc, all of which affect confidence. To break the cycle do schools and parents need to do more to counter the social pressures which undermine confidence in more of a linked-up way than occasional dedicated events, visits and days, welcome as these are?

If we don’t, I fear that the STEM and tech gap is going to mean girls are going to continue to be disadvantaged in the workplace, perhaps more so than in the past even, in an era when such subjects are going to be increasingly important.



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