A few weeks ago, I sat on a panel at the Wonder Women in Tech conference, discussing the challenges facing women in STEM industries. When discussing why so few girls study computing at university, the panel discussed a phenomenon that has played a huge role in creating this gender gap: marketing.
My generation of women happened to grow up just as the home computer was becoming more affordable, and with that came a huge consumer market which could be advertised to. However, nearly all this advertising was directed at men. In this old advert for an early Apple computer, the male protagonist is even seen mocking a girl's ability with her computer!
Prior to this, men and women were entering computer science degrees at a level close to parity. What followed was a shocking fall in the number of women entering computer science courses - a drop which almost exactly corresponds with when home PC's became prevalent. Boys played games at home and on to study computer science at college; girls didn't. And let's not forget that the console that is considered to have saved the computer game industry was called the GameBoy!
As this fantastic overview of the issue points out, gendered advertising developed in a fully-fledged narrative in which computing was the reserve of boys. Tech-focused films in the 1980s regularly featured a gifted, male, techy protagonist who would use his abilities to win the affections of a girl.
Even before gendered computer game ads alienated young girls in the 1980s, toys that were STEM focused, such as chemistry sets, were almost exclusively tailored to young boys.
I clearly remember the excitement as a child of our first home computer, but in my family it was my mother who programmed the video and embraced the home PC. She even wrote some games for the marvellous Spectrum 48k (remember that?!) and sorted out the issues with Atic Atac when it didn't load after 20mins! It never crossed my mind that technology uptake would vary between genders.
The real concern to me is how this is affecting the next generation of young girls. Mothers of my generation are less comfortable with technology, with it being seen as 'Dad's job', which implicitly sends the message that girls aren't going to be as good with technology as boys. Technology impacts every part of our lives and will make up a significant percentage of jobs going forward, and being unafraid to give things a go is key. As a mother, don't say "I was never good at this at school." Whether it is true or not it gives children an excuse to feel the same. This applies for all subjects, not just tech.
Recent statistics are also concerning. In 2010, 14% of computer science students in British universities were female. In 2014, this figure actually fell to 13%, according to data from UCAS.
The point here is not simply that gendered ads have created a generation of women who are indifferent to computing - I'm proof that this isn't always the case - but rather that the journey to a fruitful relationship between girls and coding begins at home. And while that may sound like a hackneyed phrase, there are a host of practical examples of how girls can be encouraged to think computationally and to develop an interest in tech.
Many schools in the UK have added coding to their curriculum, or teach it in after school clubs. Code Club is a fantastic, countrywide example of this, and the one that my own children attend. We should all encourage our kids to take up any extracurricular opportunity to learn to code.
It is also vital that we break down the deeply-embedded notions of gender roles at home, which often go unnoticed. If an appliance breaks, don't by default fix it with your son or let your partner do the same. Encourage your daughter to engage with the problem. It will help her problem-solving skills develop from a young age, which can translate directly into the computational thinking that coding requires.
And importantly, let your daughters engage with technology in areas that they are interested in. My seven-year-old daughter spent some time this week making a program in to get a ballet dancer to move. She was coding, but doing something that interested her. Tech doesn't have to be about spaceships and lasers!
I was lucky to grow up in a house where an interest in technology was encouraged, and I had a great female tech role model in my mother. But unfortunately I was very much the exception to the norm. But this needn't continue to be the case. Simple, practical steps by all parents to foster a healthy relationship between girls and technology could lay the foundations for a generation of female coders.
I would love to hear any other suggestions and comments of ways to encourage girls to engage with technology. Please get in touch!