Breaking stereotypes: girls in tech

David Talbert, head of ICT and computing at Highgate Wood School, explains how to inspire more girls to get involved in edtech

While there has been a significant increase in the number of girls taking computing at GCSE, they still only make up around 16% of total students studying the subject. In spite of the challenges, schools are doing all they can to break the stereotype that computing is a male-orientated subject, by bringing more talented minds into the study of technology, regardless of gender.

Achieving excellence

Zea Tongeman, a former student of mine at St Saviour’s and St Olave’s, is a fantastic example of just how much can be achieved by young women in the technology sector. Having participated in a ‘Little Miss Geek’ workshop that we hosted at the school, where the kids were able to experiment with the high-tech fashion of Francesca Rosella, Zea was completely inspired by the opportunities that technology offered.  

Soon after this the students completed the Apps for Good course, during which Zea, along with her classmate Jordan, developed an app called ‘Jazzy Recycling’. The app was designed to make recycling fun and rewarding for children and young people. The app made the finals at the programme’s award ceremony where Raj Dhonota from BBC’s, ‘The Apprentice’, was so impressed by their idea that he offered to mentor them through the app’s development!

Since then, Zea has appeared on BBC News and has even done a TED talk about technology’s image problem in the media. In March this year, she was awarded the Everywoman Technology’s ‘One to Watch’ award in honour of her achievements and for inspiring other young girls in technology.

‘Unfortunately, despite the many examples of girls succeeding in tech, the stereotypes do still exist’

At Highgate Wood, we entered the Apps for Good awards again, and our students Nancy Levy-Vegh and Rhea Patel gained international recognition for their creation ‘Water Works’, a programme which informs users about whether the water in foreign countries is safe to drink. This idea inspired tweets from musician, will.i.am, and the support of charity, Water Aid. Although they didn’t win their category, they persisted with their app idea and went on to win at the Nominet Trust iDEA competition.

Inspiring a generation

Unfortunately, despite the many examples of girls succeeding in tech, the stereotypes do still exist. Even Zea who has really taken to technology, originally thought that the subject was just for ‘nerdy boys’. It is only by breaking through these ideas that we will be able to tap into the huge and varied pool of talent that young girls and women can offer to computing and the technology industry.

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Helping students get hands-on with technology is essential as it makes the subject real for them, especially if they can create something that really interests them and has visible effects. Cross-curricular or project-based learning, such as the Apps for Good programme, can really inspire students and provide them with opportunities to build their problem-solving skills, work in teams and learn from each other. Using real-world issues is a fantastic way of stimulating creative solutions and maintaining engagement with the material for all students.

Having visible female role models also helps to show girls that women are perfectly capable of achieving great things in the science and technology sectors. We recently recruited a female member of staff in ICT and computing, which helped to lift some of the stigma around the subject. We also reach out to girls in the lower years to reassure them that computing is a subject for all, which has resulted in one of our secondary classes now being predominantly girls!

‘There are a number of resources out there for teachers to help present coding in a fun and creative way’

I started teaching soon after leaving university, so I had a basic knowledge of coding, but back then, computing didn’t feature in the curriculum at all, and many teachers have had to start from scratch in order to deliver the syllabus. However, there are a number of resources out there for teachers to help present coding in a fun and creative way. Girls may have originally shied away from the subject because of the stereotype, however, with the right encouragement and inspiration, their talent can emerge.. As part of the Digital Schoolhouse programme, Highgate Wood School has become a centre that provides workshops to primary schools and training to their teachers in light of the new primary computing curriculum. The response has been very positive with our local primaries and the pupils who have attended. One of the pupils that visited, Manon is now a Year 7 student at Highgate Wood School. She remembered the workshops and found them to be highly enjoyable. She is very interested and skilled in the subject, having gained confidence at the workshop which prepared her for secondary-level computing.

Technology is consistently changing and we need a varied base of talented people, both male and female with different skills. By inspiring both boys and more girls to study computing we can ensure this talent base exists and that the tech industry can continue to innovate into the future. 

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