From Siobhan Allen, Teacher of Computer Science

Programmable computers were first developed in Britain and the USA during World War II, predominantly for military use. Up until the 1960s, women made up most of the computing workforce as it was considered a low-skilled role equivalent to secretarial work.

During this time, women pioneers such as Mary Coombs, the first female commercial programmer in 1952, and Dina St Johnston, founder of the UK’s first software house in 1958, made important contributions to the development of modern computers.

However, recent UCAS figures show that only 13% of all UK students studying computer science related degrees are female. Whilst the computer science field has been trying to appeal to more female employees, surely it must be acknowledged that efforts to attract women to tech-related careers need to begin at school.

People think that being a good programmer is all about technical skills. Yes, they do have to be good enough, but really, it’s the listening and analysis skills, perhaps more than anything else, that lead to success in computing. It’s important to listen to exactly what is needed; you must pull apart the threads of the puzzle and ask the right questions to home in on the problem. Computing is much more of a human skill than anyone imagines – it’s not just important that a system runs. It’s vital that it does what was expected, and these days, more than ever before, there are huge moral questions in so many computer systems. For example, many systems that we had assumed are neutral can carry racial or gender imbalances if the data used it against is from one predominant group of people. The more women who move into technology and design, the more those systems are developed with their needs.

Since moving into teaching I have noticed that when computing becomes an optional subject, very few young girls take it up. I’ve talked to many colleagues about this, and we find it curious. One colleague wondered if it was because boys tend to play more computer games compared with girls? I do think girls and women often take a step back to think, which can be mistaken by those around them as a lack of certainty or knowledge, when really, they are considering details. This can lead to louder voices being heard and being seen as having the answer, creating disengagement.

Girls very often have exactly the skills needed for this subject; they are able to ask the right questions in order to pinpoint the problem, have good analytical skills and tend to question the details of everything. My mission over the next few years is to try to increase the uptake of computing by girls. I’m currently studying a master’s degree, and for my dissertation, I am very interested in finding out a little more about the choices students take as options.

Here at Downside, as well as teaching computer science lessons, I am planning a Maths Magic Club where pupils can learn magic tricks through algorithms. I’d like to share the joy of computational thinking and algorithms in a very different environment and highlight the human side of it. I hope this will make it a different computer thinking space for girls. I am also working with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charity which supports computing and computer science through providing the best curriculum, resources and training for teachers to advance the field of computing education. I am always on the lookout for groups which will support girls’ position in computing, such as the specialist BCSWomen group run by the British Computer Society.  In time I would love to make connections with other schools doing the same.

Downside offers Computing from the First Form (Year 7) through to GCSE and A level. To find out more about the School, email our Admissions Team or call on +44 (0)1761 235103.