Girls are now outnumbered six to one by boys across computer science classes, according to new research by the professional body for information technology.

Once young women do choose computing they generally outperform their male counterparts, the new report by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT found.

BCS’ ‘Landscape Review - Computing Qualifications in the UK’ report published today said the gender gap had grown with the replacement of Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) by the Computer Science discipline.

In Northern Ireland, the introduction of a broader Digital Technology option is attracting a higher percentage of girls, and Wales is now also offering this version of the subject, BCS noted in evidence.

The report is the first to focus on demand for the subject in all four UK nations. It found that participation in computing across secondary education was stable or improving, though the number taking vocational computing qualifications were declining.

UK Task Forces recommended

The research also confirmed a ‘growing appreciation’ amongst UK employers and policy makers of the role of digital qualifications and awards.

BCS recommended that task forces involving the four UK countries be formed to increase participation in computing and digital qualifications, and to understand the IT labour market and skills required by industry.

It called on senior politicians, business leaders and head teachers to promote computer science as an aspirational choice on a level of respect with other sciences.

Parents and carers of girls who excel early on in STEM should also feel confident to urge them to continue on to Computer Science A Level and a career in digital.

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Better data was required to properly understand underrepresentation of students from ethic minority groups, the Institute added.

Participation rates in Computing Science in Scotland, which had been falling steadily over recent years, rose in 2021, helped by growing popularity of new digitally focused awards.

Maintaining a pipeline of qualified computer science teachers is also common challenge to all nations; the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE), funded by the DfE is beginning to address this in England, supporting over 30,000 teachers.

Computing education and skills need to be highly valued

Professor Dame Muffy Calder, Chair of BCS’ School Curriculum and Assessment Committee (SCAC) which commissioned the report said:  “I want every child to be as inspired by the power of computing to change the world, as I was and still am.

“That means computing education and skills need to be highly valued and promoted by leaders in government, education and industry too, as a route to shape the future.

“Thankfully, the overall message of this ground-breaking report is that demand for computing education is indeed growing. Yet all of the UK nations in this study have a long-standing problem with the balance of male:female participation in both academic and vocational areas.

“Whilst male:female ratios of 2:1 were not untypical of the older Information and Communications Technology (ICT) curricula, the move to a more computing-focused approach has seen the imbalance grow: most regularly to around the 5-6:1 level.

“This matters because teams that develop, say, the use of AI in medicine, or algorithms that affect our financial lives or employment chances need to be diverse to ensure outcomes are fair and relevant to everyone in society.

“There may be lessons to be learned from some of the vocational qualifications in computing where a small number of topics show a better gender balance or, from the introduction of ‘broader church’ academic Digital Technology qualifications in Wales and Northern Ireland.

“What is shown for the first time by this report is that each UK administration in its own way is dealing with a genuine challenge: a tension between teaching Computer Science and digital skills for all.”

Applications from women to computer science degrees at UK universities have increased by 17% this year (more than any other subject) and women now make up 19% of applicants to computing courses in higher education.

About the report

BCS' “Landscape Review - Computing Qualifications in the UK” is a view of the current state of computing and digital qualifications in the UK.

The report aims to offer a comprehensive picture of the varying levels of engagement in Computer Science and closely related qualifications and focuses on continuing challenges of participation by young women and securing enough teachers to deliver specialist teaching and learning effectively.

It covers a five-year time period (2016/17-2020/21). Principally, it analyses publicly available data on academic computing and digital skills qualifications accessed by learners at age 16 and 18, which is when most students have to specialise and opt-in to detailed study of the subject.

It covers vocational and technical qualifications (VTQ) at levels 2 and 3 in the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) and levels 5 and 6 in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF).