Why don’t women learn to code?

March 8, 2013

International Women’s Day will see a lot of activism online, and the discussion around gender equality is propelled by our ability to connect to one another across the world. We cannot underestimate the power of digital, especially programming skills and capability, in ensuring women’s economic, social and political empowerment.

But in the UK, women make up only 15 per cent of IT professionals. On its own, it is important to address gender inequalities resulting from systemic stereotyping, but additionally crucial is ensuring that the UK workforce has the right skills, such as coding, for a growing digital economy. A recent estimate shows there will be up to 700,000 unfilled ICT practitioner vacancies in the EU by the year 2015, and that 90% of jobs will need at least basic computer skills. Meanwhile, 26 million people are unemployed across Europe.

With such a stark gender imbalance in this space, there is a good chance we are missing out on the potential talent of those studying and working in the UK. The Policy Exchange report Bits and Billions highlighted the need for these skills in digital entrepreneurship. Beyond start-ups, coding skills are desired by and will cut across established firms, an evolving government and within our schools.

Evidence for this imbalance is widespread, but partially points to education. In 2011, girls made up less than 7 per cent of those who took Computer Studies at A-level. This means only 241 girls took the Computing A-level exam, and this number continues to decline. Although many A-levels display a gender imbalance, none are as wide as computing. In the medium term, this could possibly be addressed by reforming the education system. Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in early 2012 that he was replacing the ICT curriculum in schools with a new computer science curriculum, developed to meet the needs of technology firms. Whether or not a gender disparity will remain, or how this will address the issue that women make up only 12 per cent of computer science programme applicants to university, has yet to be seen.

However, gender imbalance is a common characteristic in many professions. What’s unique about the gender imbalance in programming is how it has shifted, quite dramatically, over time. Your career in computer programming – a book aimed at adolescents from 1967 argued that programming requires “patience, persistence and a capacity for detail and those are traits that many girls have”.  Rooted in gender stereotypes, the profession was socially constructed as fit for women.

Initiatives to introduce children and adults to coding have emerged in recent years. Code Club runs volunteer led afterschool programmes that introduce 9 to 11 year olds to coding. Girls make up over 40 per cent of participants in Code Club, which does not mention gender in any of its material. Creators of the programme had seen the way coding initiatives that had actively “feminised” themselves had seen a drop in interest from girls, and wanted to avoid limiting the characteristics of interested students. Decoded offers workshops to adults to introduce them to coding basics, and also finds more women participating than seen in the average formal education setting. These initiatives suggest that there is something in their example that warrant further research, potentially providing clues for closing the gender gap in coding skills.

This year, 41 percent of computer science graduates at Harvard will be women. In Estonia, 44 per cent of science and technology graduates are women, while in Lithuania and Latvia women outnumber men as PhD researchers in computing.

Although only a handful of examples are noted above, they do provide some interesting thoughts for consideration. For instance, some would argue that a lack of women who are interested in learning to code is rooted in biological differences between the sexes. However, the fluidity to which this interest exemplifies itself in the UK and other countries raises an inconsistency in the idea that men and women are simply hardwired to have different career and educational aspirations.

As this sector grows, it is imperative that our workforce is equipped with the right skills for realising our potential for digital innovation. This suggests that we cannot afford to leave this gender gap unfilled.

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