Saffron Walden High School is one of the first computing hubs picked by the Government-funded National Centre for Computing Education to run computing courses for teachers in the area. The Government’s Equality Hub talks with students and their teacher.

With National Coding Week just passed, and Ada Lovelace Day coming up, this is a chance to raise awareness of inequalities in computer science careers, and showcase what the Government’s Equality Hub is doing to address gender imbalance in STEM.

We chatted to seven students from Saffron Walden High School, which is one of the first computing hubs picked by the Government-funded National Centre for Computing Education to run computing courses for teachers in the area. We discussed the girls’ experience learning coding and their aspirations for the future.

The girls, from Year 9 to Year 12, are eager computing students and aspire to go into careers ranging from fashion, medicine, law, and underwater engineering.

Anna, Elspeth, Grace, Ella, Mayurii, Rachel and Emma had lots of questions to ask us and were excited to know about the Equality Hub’s work.

Their teacher, Katie Vanderpere-Brown, says she works hard to amplify the female role models in computer science: for example, Margaret Hamilton and her work with the Apollo Mission and Katherine Johnson, the ‘human computer’.

Our conversation with students:

At what age did you start coding?

In Year 7, I’m in Year 9 now. I really enjoyed it and I’ve just picked it as an option for GCSE.

How did your friends react?

Everyone said it was going to be really difficult but I’m up for a challenge. My family were quite proud because they know that I enjoy it.

Their teacher, Katie, said: ‘We’ve had some good success here getting girls to recognise the importance of, and pick, computer science at GCSE, but the problem is few consider it for their next step and don’t take it for their A-Levels. They can understand the value of learning to code, but few see it as a viable career. We’re trying to get across that computer science can be a part of many creative jobs, not just a programming career.

‘Lots of students who take it have family members, older siblings, doing computer science. We need to find a way to reach those students who don’t have role models in coding in their home.’

Katie also explored some of the barriers which are preventing girls from moving into computer science.

‘There’s a shortage of specialised computer science teachers,’ she explains. ‘Where other teachers are covering computer science lessons, it shows students, particularly those who are shrewd, that this subject is not valued as much, or it isn’t someone’s full-time profession.

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‘Now that we have more textbooks, more words written in exercise books, computer science feels more like their other school subjects, like history. I think this helps them take it more seriously.

‘There are only two girls in our Year 13 class of computer science, but more in Year 12, and making the choice in Year 11.’

What is the government doing?

Encouraging girls to take STEM subjects at school is a huge part of improving women’s progression in STEM careers. There has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to STEM A-Levels in England between 2010 and 2019, however girls continue to make up a relatively small proportion of entries to maths (39%), physics (22%) and computing (13%).

The Government is funding the Improving Gender Balance national research trial, led by the Institute of Physics, and the Gender Balance in Computing Programme to investigate ways to understand and tackle a lack of female participation in STEM careers. It also supports programmes such as STEM Ambassadors - there are currently more than 20,000 STEM Ambassadors, and over 40% of these are women.

Changes need to be made in the workplace as well as education. The Government’s Equality Hub is encouraging employers to make flexible working a default policy, allowing people with caring commitments to progress in careers.

Almost 1 in 4 (24%) of female workers provide care for older or disabled family or friends, compared with just over 1 in 8 (13%) male workers, according to a 2019 ONS study. This means that increasing on flexible working opportunities allows those with caring responsibilities, to have more control over their careers.

Flexible working, alongside other initiatives, such as the government’s shared parental leave policies, address barriers to women progressing in demanding but rewarding careers, of which STEM careers are a prime example.

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