woman wearing a white lab coat working on an engineering project, International Women in Engineering Day

Are engineering and computer science really not for women?

Article by Dr Elaine Garcia, Head of Academics at InteractivePro. Elaine is also a lecturer with the London School of Business and Finance.

woman wearing a white lab coat working on an engineering project, International Women in Engineering DayGender equality is an issue in which much progress has been made. There is however still much work still to do.

Whilst laws concerning gender equality are allowing us to deal with overt inequality there has not been sufficient work undertaken to ensure that the more covert and latent forms of gender inequality have been removed.

One example of this form of gender inequality can be seen within education. When young people enter Higher Education, the choice of courses or subject areas made in some cases appear to suggest a gender bias that is not being eradicated.

From data available it is possible to see that there are some areas in which there are significant gender differences between the number of students undertaking programmes. These include within engineering and technology and computer science where 17%-19% of students were female between 2014/2015 and 2018/2019. This compares to the overall number of female students entering HE within this period totalling 56% of all enrolments.

Whilst these figures alone do not tell us the whole story of why there are differences between male and female student choices there are some concerning patterns within these trends which do not appear to have changed significantly within the last five years despite efforts to try to rectify this imbalance by a number of universities and other bodies. In this case we must therefore question why we are seeing gender imbalances within such subjects.

It is interesting to note that whilst imbalances have always existed, the number of female students studying computer science is reported to have fallen from around 30% in the 1970s to the figures we see today. The reasons for this drop are largely attributed to the ways in which personal computers and computer science were marketed within the 1980s and 1990s which was directed more towards male consumers rather than female consumers. This in turn led to less interest amongst woman for studies in computing science.

As computers have become more ubiquitous within our lives this marketing trend has been somewhat reversed and so it is hoped that this factor will start to play less of a role in prospective student decisions. With this in mind there must be other issues impacting on the decisions of subject areas both female and male students are making.

There has been a number of projects that have sought to try to encourage female students to consider engineering and computer science as possible future careers and therefore subjects for study. This has included seeking to define and develop courses within the areas as well as creating mentorship programmes and fostering an environment in which female students become more interested in these subjects at an earlier stage of their lives. These interventions have however, so far, had limited impact on the balance of student numbers within these areas.

Perhaps it is important therefore to consider why these imbalances may exist to begin with and therefore the experience that children have at school must be reviewed. It is reported that implicit bias and stereotypes are still pervasive within both primary and secondary school and are leading to children forming gendered attitudes and expectations about both school and the world in general. This therefore suggests that much of the work to ensure gender equality occurs needs to happen long before students are making decisions relating to the University subject choice.

Whilst there may not be an obvious answer to why and how the gender imbalances occur within university subject choice it is clear that there is still much work to do to ensure that gender equality is maintained within education. It is also apparent that this issue also needs to be addressed at a much earlier stage than when students are considering their subject choice. It may in fact be necessary to go back to the playground and consider the gender stereotypes and expectations that children may be forming long before they even consider their progression to Higher Education.

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Classroom Changemaker featured

New £5,000 award for maths and computer science teachers

Classroom Changemakers 1080x1080 square NEW 2-01

Nesta has launched Classroom Changemakers, a new award programme award for teachers and teaching assistants who have come up with bright ideas on how to give young people the opportunity to get creative and solve problems in maths and computer science.

Classroom Changemakers will see 15 winning secondary school teachers receive:

  • £5000 to invest back into their departments
  • An expenses-paid trip to the Classroom Changemakers final awards ceremony in London for themselves and +1's with transport and teaching cover provided for
  • Their ideas collated in a report to be shared more widely with the teaching profession.

Applications are open until Monday 24 February and applicants should only need a maximum of 30 minutes to complete a short application form on their idea, its impact on students and what inspired them to develop it. Find out more here.

What is the aim of Classroom Changemakers?

Through these awards Nesta aims to:

  • Reward and celebrate the great work of 15 teachers and teaching assistants through a prize of £5000 towards the applicant’s department and an awards ceremony in London
  • Better understand how teachers and teaching assistants are giving young people the opportunity to be creative and solve problems in maths and computer science
  • Share this understanding and the bright ideas unearthed by the awards with other educators through a report showcasing the winning ideas

How do teachers and teaching assistants enter?

Submit a short application form answering three main questions about the idea here by 9am on Monday 24th February 2020.

Want to find out more?

Girls in tech, STEM

Why a “big bang” moment is key to getting girls into tech

Article by Sinead O'Donnell is Director Human Resources at Raytheon UK

Girls in techLots of children will remember a “big bang” moment from their youth, when the world exploded into excitement, chock-full of possibilities.

That moment might be sparked by a shared experience, a new moment of learning or – in my case – a gift that spoke to a new world of technology.

Even now, I distinctly remember unwrapping my Sinclair Spectrum 48K computer, complete with a full suite of games and a manual the size of a telephone book.

I was just 10 years old at the time, and although it was a big unwieldy thing, it felt like the stuff of dreams. Whilst my siblings and friends were desperate to play the games, I was desperate to grasp how it all worked.

From the outside, it all seemed so mysterious, but there was clearly some wonderful technology at play here. And if I could understand it, who knows what it could do or what could happen? It was a lot for me to contemplate but it helped that I had some wonderful people around me to help ask the right questions.

I had a fabulous maths teacher at the all-girls grammar school I attended. She encouraged her students to think outside the box and to apply maths in our everyday lives. She also introduced a GCSE in Computers to the school, and I was therefore able to study for that and a Computer Science A-level.

The strong support and encouragement at school meant that I was not aware that tech was often considered a “masculine” profession. But I was one of just seven women on my Computer Science course at university – out of 70!

I didn’t know it at the time, but the Spectrum computer represented my first steps towards a lifelong love of technology and a career that has revolved around those early questions: How does it work? Can I understand it? What if I did this?

These questions played a vital role in my former role as a software engineer and are still relevant as I lead human resources for Raytheon UK. Even in a role that is ostensibly less technical, I’m still using the same engineering and development mindset. That might mean understanding how and where to add value, or agreeing requirements up front, and making sure to support creativity within the framework of what the deliverables should be.

We’re always looking to continually improve our HR offering and being an engineer has undoubtedly helped me to have a better understanding of how HR adds value across our organisation and the defence sector more broadly. But do many other girls and women understand that a background in technology or software development can take you beyond the obvious tech jobs like coding?

The variety of careers available to women who have a background in STEM is hardly obvious. Ultimately you can’t be what you can’t see. Although I was oblivious as a child and young adult about the gender divide in technology, it became obvious that I was in a minority when I undertook an industrial placement during my third year of university.

After a month of being treated differently on the placement- being asked, for example, to undertake more administrative tasks than my peers- I explained to my boss that the status quo was failing to teach me anything of value and could leave me unable to either to complete my degree and or become employable in my chosen field. It might sound extreme but this approach paid off– my boss became a great mentor and helped me learn how to navigate office politics.

In HR, a key part of my role is to enable entry points into STEM for women later in their careers. I have taken on as a personal challenge to ensure that we are giving a new generation of female talent a sturdy leg up. We need to mentor the next generation of women in tech by reaching out, sharing our experiences and offering networking opportunities. We must challenge unconscious bias where we see it.

I'm proud to be the executive sponsor of Raytheon Women's Network. Open to all employees – male or female – we work to address common issues in the workplace and to encourage greater equality, not only tech, but in all roles.

I hope these efforts will help broaden the tech talent pipeline. Because we don’t just need more women in tech, we want more women with technical mindsets in other roles too. Let’s strive to spark those “big bang” moments in the next generation of young girls.

Sinead O'DonnellAbout the author

Sinead read Computer Science at the University of Ulster, before spending over a decade working in software engineering.

In 2007, she transitioned into a more HR focused role. Today, she is the UK Director of HR at defence and cybersecurity firm Raytheon.

On Wednesday 22 January, Raytheon will be sponsoring the inaugural ADS Women in Aerospace and Defence Summit, as part of its commitment to promoting greater diversity within the sector.

Computer Science Education Week: 17 female Microsoft experts share predictions for 2017

This week (5-11 December) is Computer Science Education Week.

To promote the week, Microsoft has pulled together 17 of its female role models to give their views on what’s likely to occur in their fields in 2017.

Below are three of the role models, however you can find the full 17 on Microsoft’s blog here.

The women share their expertise across a wide range of topics, including artificial intelligence, biological computation, virtual reality and much more.

Ktja Hofmann, researcher, Cambridge, UK, research lab

What will be the key advance in artificial intelligence and machine learning in 2017?

In 2017 computer games will take centre stage in the development of AI. Experimentation platforms based on games, such as Project Malmo -- which my team and I have developed to enable AI experimentation in Minecraft – will allow for rapid testing of new ideas. I am especially excited about the potential for collaborative AI. We are now at the point where we can start to understand how AI can learn from us and collaborate with us to help us achieve our goals.

Kristin Lauter, principal researcher, Redmond, US, research lab

What will be the key advance in mathematics and cryptography in 2017?

New mathematical solutions allowing for computation on encrypted data will be deployed to protect the privacy of medical and genomic data for patients and hospitals.  The new homomorphic encryption schemes will secure the data while allowing the cloud to compute on it to make useful risk predictions and provide analysis and alerts. Homomorphic encryption will be deployed soon in the financial sector to protect sensitive banking data.

Sara-Jane Dunn, scientist, Cambridge, UK, research lab

What will be the key advance or topic of discussion in biological computation in 2027?

If we can imagine the realisation of programming biology, in 10 years’ time we will be developing entirely new industries and applications in areas ranging from agriculture and medicine to energy, materials and computing. While the last 50 years were utterly transformed by the ability to program on silicon, we will be entering the next programming revolution: The era of living software.

You can join in the conversation for Computer Science Education week at @codeorg and @csedweek along with the hashtag #hourofcode.