According to the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT), careers within the Computer and Information Sciences are projected to grow 19% by 2026, as compared to 7% for all occupations. Within that classification, every category of job role will see growth with the exception of a basic computer programmer. Further, NCWIT reports that Computer Science, as a field, boasts the smallest gender gap in median salary, just shy of $3000, as compared to a nearly $4,000 gap in Finance, and more than $8,000 gap in Education.
Despite the growth of computing careers, high salary expectations for women, and promise of more comparable pay, computer science as a field struggles to both attract and retain women throughout the course of their computer science educational pursuit. As of 2016, women earned only 17% of Bachelor’s Degrees in Computer Science, an 11% decrease since 1990. Minority women are even further underrepresented within the field, with less than half of those degrees being earned by women of color (NCWIT, 2019).
The data suggest that while improvements have been made in reaching women at the upper high school level, it has made little impact on the number of women intending to pursue computer science as a career. Research at all levels of education has suggested that while focus has been placed on recruiting and retaining females in computer science at the upper high school and collegiate level, it may be too late to significantly impact closing the gender gap in tech, and may be targeting changes that don’t necessarily impact women’s desire to pursue computer science at a high level. Instead, multiple independent research papers have suggested that attracting and retaining women in technology begins much earlier, in upper elementary and middle school. Significant change requires a shift in pedagogy that gives girls the opportunity to do computing work with real world application. Curriculum must expose them to adequately rigorous challenges that increase their self confidence with regards to programming and provide them with a supportive academic and social community of their peers that increases their sense of belonging.
Based on existing research, there are four major implications for computer science teachers and curriculum developers as the field evolves to spur a more diverse and balanced workforce. Computer science coursework at the secondary level should allow students to solve real world problems, work collaboratively with a peer support group throughout the learning process, provide scaffolded rigor so that all students have the opportunity to build self confidence through challenging work, and be offered to all students beginning at the middle school level.
Computer science curriculum at the secondary level should focus on giving students the opportunity to work collaboratively to solve real world problems. Beyond just teaching a student how to program, educators must give students the tools to work as a team, beyond just role specialization. Incorporation of Agile Scrum and similar industry standard tools allows students to effectively collaborate in way that mirrors what they will experience in a future career path, and allows students to explore multiple angles of a computing career, making it more accessible to females who might not be interested in a traditional programming role. Further, collaboration allows for students – both male and female – to create social and academic relationships with their peers, which may lead to higher retention of females within computer science educational pathways.
Next, gendered spaces should exist within school so that girls are able to collaborate with their peers and find commonalities with other girls as they work through challenging content. Ideally, these spaces – typically clubs – should have female mentors, although the research shows that having female peer support is more valuable than having female mentors.
Because self-efficacy is perceived, scaffolds to learning should be offered to all students throughout the learning process so that students can work to build independence and confidence with the material. These could be offered as workbooks or notesheets, additional videos or tutorials, or teacher support in the form of small group instruction or one on one conferencing. Students should have access to additional practice, chunking of larger scale projects, and/or extended time, as necessary. Success throughout the process should be reinforced and celebrated, so that girls are constantly building self confidence.
Equity in computer science coursework begins with equity in access. The research consistently concludes that early experience with programming correlates with choosing to take a computer science course or declaring a computer science major at the collegiate level. Counselors and educators should be trained to share computer science coursework as a potential course offering to all students. Utilizing school-wide opportunities to try coding like Hour of Code could be another pathway to give every student the chance to experience programming, and may have a real impact on whether or not students pursue further coursework.
Closing the gender gap in tech begins with closing the gender gap in computer science education. Despite the fact that women make up only 26% of the computing workforce (NCWIT, 2019), with only 9% of the computing workforce being made up of women of color, changes to pedagogical approaches to computer science at the secondary level could significantly impact collegiate enrollment of women in CS. With the projection of a decrease in the number of true computer programmer roles while dynamic, collaborative roles within computing are on the rise, there is no better time to develop multi-faceted computer science curriculum to better meet the needs of girls and our work force.
Equity begins with access; computer science cannot be a course reserved for only wealthy, high achieving students. Offering computer science to fulfill a degree requirement can help ensure that more students are incentivized to experience the course at a secondary level, which in turn, could lead to increased enrollment at the tertiary level. Curriculum should be collaborative, and students should have the opportunity to do meaningful work with real world implications. Finally, girls must be provided with spaces where they are supported by people like them, whether it be a club, a study group, or an intentionally grouped team within a course.
Want to read more in depth research? The reference list for this post can be found here.