Computing girls

The much-awaited, yet skeptically anticipated, computing curriculum has finally arrived at UK schools, firmly set on creating new generations of disruptive technology creators.

Over the last two years, the UK has strategically transitioned into this change through a surge in code clubsRaspberry Pi Raspithons and the 'Year of Code' campaigning. While the new computing curriculum is greatly embraced in the current technology-fixated climate and has bold aspirations for gender equity, there is still a gender imbalance: boys continue to far outweigh girls in computing related subjects and activities. It will likely take many years of impact studies and behavioural change effort by the policy makers and practitioners to ‘reboot’.

We are on the right track but more still has to be done among policy makers, teachers and parents alike. For starters, embracing the effects of bio-psychosocial factors is key...

The challenge is complex and vast. It requires a thorough look at all aspects of human functioning, spanning early experience, brain, cognition, biology, educational policy and cultural context. These biopsychosocial factors are deeply intertwined and influence each other in a continuous causal loop – biological factors can influence how individuals select environments and these environments can then cause further biological development.

While there are many, often contradictory, studies trying to establish biological or environmental or combined causation, we will focus on three areas that, if taken into account, will go the furthest towards creating gender equity in computing: these are spatial skills, relative cognitive strengths and stereotypes.

Spatial skills
High levels of prenatal androgens, biologically more common in males, influence boys’ advantage in the development of mental rotation (spatial) ability in early life. Spatial skills support generation of good understanding of computing and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects (Miller and Halpern, 2014). Hence, a higher number of boys than girls have traditionally chosen these topics. However, interestingly society also plays a role as male advantages in spatial rotation performance tend to be larger in wealthier nations and in families with higher socioeconomic status that can afford construction toys and action video games that can substantially improve spatial skills. If spatial ability can be trained to a large extent in both boys and girls, then why don’t we utilise it more in the computing and general STEM education to boost performance?

Relative cognitive strengths
Among individuals with high computing test performance, individuals with higher performance in, for example, verbal skills will be less likely to pursue computing, as they will psychologically alleviate towards the ‘stronger’ skill (Wang et al., 2013). The skill difference does not have to be large for this phenomenon to take place. This has implications for girls as they have generally stronger verbal skills than spatial performance. Perhaps a solution to this is a provision of career mentoring to, as Sheryl Sandberg (2013) recommends, change the mindset from focusing more on what one cannot to what one can do?

Cultural gender stereotypes, that have immediate situational effects on lowering cognitive performance of females, are still firmly present in the Western societies and continue to pose a threat to broadening computing education among girls. Sadly, teachers and parents play a role in shaping stereotype threat. For instance, a previous study (reported in Miller and Halpern, 2014) has shown how kindergarten-age girls underperformed and endorsed gender-mathematics stereotypes if their female teacher was anxious about mathematics, but were immune to stereotype-threat effects if their mothers rejected gender-mathematics stereotypes.

In addition, the Western economies, despite more advanced ‘gender-equal’ policies, have generally larger gender segregations in computing and other STEM fields than their poorer counterparts. For example, in India girls have higher computer self-efficacy than boys (Khatoon and Mahmood, 2011).

One way of combatting this challenge is a wider cross-country dissemination of computer scientist role models across multiple careers and articulation of the flexibility that the possession of computing skills offers in academic and professional life. Another intervention could also involve the addition of Art to STEM (i.e. STEAM) topics as it injects creativity into the problem-solving process and might widen appeal to a greater number of young people.

When well-designed, the computing curriculum can maximise girls’ and boys’ cognitive potential. However, the challenge in developing an entirely new computing topic for the first time in the modern education system is unlikely to have accounted for the full extent of boys and girls’ learning needs across brain, biology and culture.

We are on the right track but more still has to be done among policy makers, teachers and parents alike. For starters, embracing the effects of biopsychosocial factors is key not just across education but also more broadly in the structure of society more systemically.

Mindset reminders

  • Behaviour change for female enrollment in computing and STEM in academic and professional fields needs to take into account the range of bio-psychosocial factors.
  • Educational interventions, such as additional training in spatial skills, regular mentoring and career guidance on the depth and flexibility of a computing career, as well as broadening STEM to STEAM, have the potential to significantly enhance the new computing curriculum.


Miller, D. I. and Halpern, D. F. (2014) “The new science of cognitive sex differences”. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, January 2014, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 37-45.
Wang, M.T. et al. (2013) “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”. Psychological Science, Vol. 24, pp. 770–775.
Sandberg, S. (2013) “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”. WH Allen.
Khatoon, T. and Mahmood, S. (2011) “Computer Attitude as a Function of Gender, Type of School, Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Achievement”European Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 434-443.

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