(this article has been written for the Somerset Times, published on 21 October, 2016)
A reason cited by girls to explain their lack of interest in IT is that computing and technology is seen as a boy’s subject. This unfortunate viewpoint is due to unconscious gender-bias stemming from a culturally defined stereotype that IT is boring, for boys only, and for ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’. These socially constructed gender profiles are taught to children at a very young age and is perpetuated through societal norms, such as when people say that ‘girl’s play with dolls’ and ‘boys don’t cry’. Gender inequality stereotypes then flow through our educational systems and places of work, resulting in perpetuating this stereotype further and creating ‘boy’s clubs’ in certain industries like IT. It is difficult for a girl to identify and sustain a passion in IT if there are not many female IT role models in both education and in industry. This is arguably the main reason why it is difficult to attract and sustain women in STEM fields.
Fortunately, Governments and organisations around the world have identified the issue of the decreasing numbers of women in STEM, particularly in the computer science field, and initiatives to increase women’s participation have been implemented. This is why we hear a lot via the media about efforts to attract girls and women into IT. Think about how much better the apps, software and technical innovations that we use today might be if they were designed and developed by a diverse group of people. It is important that our automated, robotic, artificial-intelligent and digital future is programmed by a diverse range of programmers that authentically represent our diverse society.
At Somerset College we have two Grade 9 female students who are passionate about IT. Rebecca and Maya are a minority in the Grade 9 IT class but through their fun personalities and innovative work they are viewed as role models by our younger female students. They also show the boys that they are quite capable with computing and they are invaluable team members. This term Rebecca and Maya were both given an Arduino kit to explore and to prototype physical computing solutions. Rebecca and Maya were instantly attracted to the Arduino kits! They have built a range of projects, such as a Simon Says game using buttons and lights, and a simple prototype of a musical instrument. It is common to see these girls excited in class when they build a new project and it works. Sometimes their initial build does not work and that leads them to problem solve creatively using iterative design and testing techniques.
Arduino (aka Genuino) is a microcontroller (the brains of a system!) that plugs into a computer via USB. The power of Arduino is that it allows for efficient prototyping of physical computing solutions that involve electronics and programming. Rebecca and Maya were able to create circuits using breadboards (no soldering required) that were controlled by the Arduino microcontroller. The girls programmed the Arduino by writing code in the Arduino programming language (a simplified version of C++). The girls are thrilled to see how learning to program has opened up their view of the multitude of things that a computer can do; they are now viewing computers as open creative environments and not as just an opaque tool that sends email and creates document files. Arduino is an open-source platform that includes a wonderful worldwide community of maker contributions, so the girls have access to a vast amount of project ideas that they can copy, experiment with, and modify. I can’t wait to see what they will create next!
Encourage the girls in your life to explore STEM and maybe this year for Christmas they will receive an Arduino kit instead of a typical socially prescribed gender-specific toy.