Female Students Less Confident They Can Learn Computer Science

Posted By Terri Williams on January 6, 2016 at 8:41 am
Female Students Less Confident They Can Learn Computer Science

According to recent research, the gender gap in computer science may be harder to close than previously thought – especially since female students, parents, and even teachers think boys are more likely to be successful than girls in this field.

A recent study by Gallup and Google polled male and female students in the seventh through 12th grades as well as parents of students in the seventh through 12th grades and teachers with students in the first- through 12th grades. The results? Male students are more confident and interested in computer science than female students – a perception that is echoed by both parents and teachers, as well as popular media.

Actual confidence and interest in computer science

Below, seventh- through 12th-grade students answered questions regarding their confidence and interest in computer science. Boys are more self-assured than girls in each of the three areas.

Male Female
Very confident that they could learn computer science if they wanted to 62% 46%
Very likely to learn computer science 35% 18%
Very likely to have a job someday where they would need to know some computer science 42% 33%


Perceived gender differences in interest in computer science

When asked who they perceived as being more interested in computer science, students, parents, and teachers were more likely to think boys have a greater desire to learn the discipline.

Girls Boys Both equally
Students 14% 74% 9%
Parents 10% 64% 21%
Teachers 4% 63% 29%


Perceived gender differences in interest in computer science

When asked who they thought is more likely to be successful learning computer science, students and parents were more likely to choose boys, although teachers were more likely to think both genders were equally as apt to be successful.

Girls Boys Both Equally
Students 30% 44% 18%
Parents 23% 37% 33%
Teachers 19% 36% 40%


Perceptions of computer science in TV/film

When asked how often they saw females involved in computer science in TV shows and movies, the majority saw females “some of the time:”

Students Parents
Most of the time 15% 8%
Some of the time 47% 53%
Not very often 31% 30%
Never 5% 5%


Analyzing the survey results

If the majority of male and female students – and their parents and teachers – considers computer science a male-dominated field, changing these perceptions may be an uphill battle.

Ironically, however, women used to be at the forefront of the computer science movement.

According to David Yang, co-founder of New York City-based Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper Academy,  “It’s a little-known fact that early computer programming was considered ‘women’s work,’ and computer science was pioneered by several inspirational women, including Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace.”

However, Yang says that today, women receive only 18% of computer science degrees. And, he says it is estimated that 41% of current female software engineers will leave the field in the next 10 years.

Across the board, computer science majors have been on the decline, and especially among women, according to Diana Betz, assistant professor of psychology at Siena College in Loudonville, NY. At the same time, Betz says demand for job candidates with a computer science degree is projected to grow. She warns, “What this low confidence and potentially low support for girls in computing means is that the gap will continue to widen, and we’ll fail to tap half the population’s talent in order to fill those waiting jobs.”

Regarding the low interest rates of females, Betz says that majors and careers are often selected based on not just interests but also on what students think they will succeed at. “The lower confidence levels among girls may be a result of not seeing many examples of women working in computing, or mainly seeing cultural images that are unappealing to girls, such as masculine or unsociable computer scientists.” And, Betz says that parental expectations play a major determining factor. “Kids can pick up on expectations for success or struggle, and those very expectations can influence them to actually do well or poorly, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Betz says all of these factors combine to create a cycle. “We expect less computing interest from girls, girls don’t see many people like themselves in the field, girls do poorly or don’t seek out opportunities to try it out, and people’s expectations are confirmed, yielding still fewer examples to help inspire the next generation.”

Turning the tide

The presence of female role models can help to increase confidence and interest levels among female students. Betz notes that girls tend to show more interest in computer science after learning about women in science, or seeing examples of computer scientists – whether male or female – who are different from potentially unflattering stereotypes.

“Actress Lupita Nyong’o wore a light-up dress on the Star Wars red carpet – and I can’t imagine a bigger stage – that was designed with the help of Google’s Made With Code, a project aimed at getting girls interested in coding,” says Betz.

“Perceptions of the field may gradually begin to change with more visibility of the field and the people in it, whether from national campaigns or small-scale collaborations – like computer science professors going to talk to local schools, or colleges holding summer campus with computing activities,” says Betz. However, she warns that once interest is piqued, “We need to provide support and mentoring to help students overcome challenges that come with being a numerical minority in the classroom or the workplace.”

At Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper Academy, Yang says the programming curriculum is based on computer science pioneers such as Hopper and Lovelace. “Seeing this drastic gender disparity is the reason that we recently launched Grace Hopper Academy, the first women’s coding school with deferred tuition.” The school’s goal is to create a new pathway for females to enter the software engineering field.

Yang also thinks it would be beneficial to teach the inspirational stories of Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace in grade school. “That would help create female role models for young girls, and normalize the computer science career path for them,” says Yang.

Corporate organizations can also play a role in redefining existing perceptions of computer science professionals. “One way for women to succeed in greater numbers in tech careers is to create a culture that encourages and supports girls to explore and learn STEM skills at an early age, says Kimberly Snipes, vice president of Consumer Products and Operations Technology for Capital One Financial Corporation.

“Programs like C1 Coders, where Capital One volunteers teach young students software engineering principles, not only instill fundamental skills, but they ignite a love of tech and inspire self-confidence in the students’ tech abilities” says Snipes.

And Erin Albert recently wrote a book about computer science geared toward girls ages 5 to 9.  The Amazing Adventures of the Princesses from Planet STEM: FUNBOOK ALPHA, introduces young readers to coding “languages” through hands-on learning activities and puzzles.

Albert also points to other organizations, such as Code.org, Khan Academy, and Girls Who Code, which focus on getting girls interested in coding. Albert concludes, “Computer science and coding are like learning a foreign language – you have to first introduce a student to the language, then they can go explore corners of the profession that interest them.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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