Girls and computers. Programming as an important competence of the 21st century

Women use computers and modern technology tools less often than men. This fact is documented by numerous studies around the world. The question is, why do women use technology less? Is it due to inferior access to computer tools? Although women’s access to computers is growing significantly, the gender gap in digital literacy is still large. Research involving US high school and college students has shown that the gap between girls and boys and between men and women is the greatest in high school and college. Similar results are obtained from the analysis of data collected as part of the international Programme for International Student Assessment, in which Polish students also participate. Their results show that even schoolgirls with similar access to the computer and the Internet used the computer less often, spent less time programming or using the computer for entertainment purposes (playing games, watching Internet content). Of course, this time spent using digital tools translates into the level of digital competence.

However, it is important to note that the observed difference between boys and girls is not just related to competences and skills or the frequency of using digital tools. It also includes attitudes towards using a computer: interest in, liking activities performed with the use of digital tools. Research shows that boys like using computers more, they feel more confident using computers, or more broadly technological tools. And because they like it, they spend more time using these tools and therefore have a higher level of digital competence. So what can be done to make sure that both girls and boys, women on an equal footing with men gain these important digital competences? Where does the reluctance of girls and women to deal with technology come from?

Why don’t girls choose science

It seems that in Poland the first step towards greater interest of girls and women in computer technology has already been made, because the availability of equipment is no longer a major barrier. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done, because girls more often than boys have to share access to equipment with other household members. But it seems that social barriers, including stereotypes, are the key barriers. Professions requiring digital competences are still stereotypically perceived as typically male. Additional computer classes are less often of interest to girls than to boys. Girls are also less likely than boys to think about a professional career in this area. Why is that so?

Researchers point to various sources of the reluctance of girls to deal with new technologies. These factors also include stereotypical beliefs widespread in society, ascribing lower competences in science and new technologies to girls and women. In these public perceptions, girls simply don’t have the skills needed to be successful in IT.

Girls struggle with these negative stereotypes on two fronts. Firstly, due to the stereotypical perception by teachers and their own parents, they are less likely to be encouraged to sign up for additional computer classes, and even if they enrol in them, they are much less likely to receive support and help to persevere in them. Additionally, the social image of the computer geek: a boy who plays computer games alone at night in a stretched sweater is not particularly attractive to girls for whom community values and being part of a group, are usually quite important. Changing this image, by showing women programmers, girls interested in programming, creating groups associating women dealing with IT is extremely important. This is the goal of the community, for example Geek Girls Carrots which brings together women from all over the world and is also very active in Poland. But industry events for women are not enough. Profiles of tech girls and women must also be featured in mainstream media and popular series.

On the other hand, stereotypes appearing automatically in girls’ heads discourage them from participating in computer classes. The phenomenon called by C.M. Steele and J. Aronson a stereotype threat causes girls who are reminded of the negative stereotype of women with lower digital competences to achieve worse results in computer-related tasks. As shown by Polish research conducted by S. Bedyńska’s team, people at risk of the stereotype also tend to lose interest in this area of knowledge affected by the negative stereotype. This situational phenomenon significantly influences the achievements and decisions of girls regarding their further education. It discourages them from studying science and computing. The threat of stereotyping can emerge extremely easily. For example, it turns out that even the appearance of a classroom can activate negative stereotypes. Research by S. Cheryan and her colleagues showed that if there were posters with advertisements for computer games attractive to boys in the room, such surroundings caused negative feelings and fears that made it difficult for girls to perform tasks on the computer. Neutral surroundings, with a large number of plants and landscape posters did not arouse such feelings.

How to get girls to code

Kamila Stępniowska, COO of the “Geek Girls Carrots” organisation supporting the development of the digital competences of women claims that “The ability to code in the near future may be just as important as the ability to read, write or know the English language.” If so, how can we encourage girls and women to engage in this field? Generally speaking, most people agree that children, including girls, should learn to code. A report prepared by Mirosław Filiciak, Kamil Sijko and Alek Tarkowski in 2015 (“Learning programming at school. Time for an upgrade”) showed that 85% of adult Poles, both men and women, when asked whether learning programming would benefit students, answered yes. The report indicates that these benefits are defined in a very utilitarian manner, as greater opportunities in the labour market, but also as the development of logical thinking skills. However, what methods of developing digital competences are indicated in the report? Rather more those that are not typical school activities. The authors suggest that the school should teach the basics, but the passion should be aroused by additional, extracurricular activities with specialists in a given area. Classes awakening internal motivation should reward not only the acquisition of specific competences, but also putting in a lot of work or effort to acquire these competences. Classes conducted in this way should also provide immediate feedback so that participants immediately know that they have completed the tasks correctly. It can be a robot, an object made on a 3D printer, a digitally drawn drawing. These general recommendations will work for girls, but don’t forget that these actions should be gender-specific. What a boy would like to design and produce on a 3D printer does not have to be attractive to a girl, and vice versa. The selection of appropriate content so that it is attractive to both genders is still a challenge for the teachers. Drawing a digital unicorn by a girl is often not very positive and is considered frivolous, even if it allows the girl to acquire the appropriate competences. Teachers have to overcome the existing stereotypical opinions that link programming with male content in their heads. As research by Josemario Albuquerque and his colleagues has shown, gamification that supports teaching leads to a stereotype threat in the group of girls. Thus, it is not a technique supporting the development of digital competences, although it is sometimes recommended.

What else is important? Research shows that stereotypes are extremely persistent and don’t change much over time because they are very effectively perpetuated and communicated by the media. On TV, the computer specialist is still a man in a plaid flannel shirt. Changing this image is extremely important so that women can treat this field as their own. It is also worth showing how diverse people with diverse hobbies, interests and values work in this industry. Then it will be easier for interested girls to find a model of a professional role. We should not focus on repeating the unfavourable beliefs about the necessity of having a talent to be able to work as a programmer. Due to stereotypical beliefs, girls often perceive themselves as less talented and therefore do not want to develop digital competences. As in other fields of science, it is better to point out that it is work and exercise that lead to high achievement. Of course, it is also worth inspiring and encouraging them. Only if they try will they be able to determine if it’s something for them.

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Sylwia Bedyńska

Sylwia Bedyńska, PhD

Psychologist, methodologist and statistician, lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. A specialist who studies the importance of stereotypes for the effectiveness of learning and solving difficult cognitive tests, as well as for school burnout and student motivation. For years she has been teaching statistics to humanists. She is also interested in statistical methods and psychological research methodology – she is a co-editor of the three-volume academic textbook “Statistical guideline”, and the author of a series of articles popularising statistical and methodological knowledge.

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