Girls in Tech: how did we get here?

We’re kicking off a series to accompany a new three-year project supported by Comic Relief, which aims to challenge sexism in the digital sector. Here Max Baczynski from the Apps for Good Business Development team examines the history of some of the issues facing girls in tech. Later blogs will focus on what we’re doing to try to improve diversity in the tech sector as part of the project, and, in true Apps for Good style, where we’re succeeding and where we’re failing.

We all know that women are terribly underrepresented in tech, with only 17% of positions in the UK tech industry filled by women. The real question is why? What happened to women in computer science?

A piece by NPR provides insight on this, pointing to the coincidentally Orwellian year, 1984. This is the year that computer science diverges from an upward trend in representation of female majors in technical subjects, plateaus, and then begins to decline, significantly.

As with all trends in society, there are myriad causes but, according to NPR’s research, a hugely influential factor seems to be the emergence of the personal computer in the early eighties. The early PCs were marketed as toys to play games (think classics like Space Invaders) and almost exclusively as toys for boys, a narrative propagated by Hollywood (think films like WarGames). It began to create a culture where women either did not fit or were not visible at all.

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Apps for Good Fellows chat with female role models from the tech industry

The rise of this narrative and the proliferation of personal computers, specifically amongst boys, had two effects. The first was to discourage women from exploring computer science or even computers at all and the second was to leave women at a disadvantage if they did start a computer science degree.

The male students, who had been exposed to computers throughout their teens, picked up an informal knowledge of computing that most girls lacked. Lecturers through the eighties began to expect more and more pre-existing knowledge and experience of computing and female students quickly realised that they were starting the course already way behind their male peers. This led to a disproportionately high dropout rate for female computer science students, even when they were excelling in other academic fields.

Over 30 years later, these effects still echo in our impact data (see table of skill improvement/careers interest below). By intervening early and through our Expert Community (40% women) where students are exposed to female role models working in tech, we show that technology is accessible for girls and boys alike. In fact girls outperform boys across the board, showing greater improvement in both technical computing skills and “soft” transferable skills. However, this does not translate into a greater interest in technical jobs or jobs that use technology, with boys reporting significantly more interest in these areas.

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Impact data 2014/15 – girls vs boys comparison

So, what’s going on here? We’ve reached our girls early, showed them the potential of tech and helped them to start building their skills. Why isn’t there a parallel increase in interest in a tech career?

Well, we must remember that our students do not exist in a vacuum and there are likely to be a number of external factors and societal pressures. For example, toys are more gendered now than they were fifty years ago, and the “Brogrammer Effect” is still going strong. To quote Jordan Weissmann, “it seems pretty plain that culture – the way society at large still treats tech as a male bastion, and the often nerd-frat hybrid culture of the field itself – plays a role.”

Whilst improving diversity in the tech sector will be a journey with no quick fixes, we’re determined to make a difference and are thrilled to be partnering with Comic Relief and other organisations on this mission. We’re building on our 50/50 male/female split of students in our course to continue to break down barriers to entry for young people that have nothing to do with ability.

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Inspiring the next generation of girls in tech

In future blogs, we’ll talk more about what new steps we’re taking and we hope you’ll support us on this mission to inspire the next generation of boys and girls in tech.