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Diversity in computer science: No gender parity in sight?

Exam results days ought to be days of celebration. The culmination of countless hours of hard work, excitement over the future and congratulatory Tweets from MP’s that no one getting their results will read. For those of us working on improving diversity in technology, results day has become a significantly less joyous occasion.

In large part this is because it has become synonymous with disappointment over the diversity of young people taking computing courses; which are absolutely vital pathways into tech careers. 2019 was no exception at either GCSE or A level.

  • At GCSE, 17,158, or 21.4 per cent of those taking Computer Science were girls.
  • A level, only 11,124 girls took Computer Science, comprising 13.3 per cent of entrants.

Defenders of these figures highlighted that the total number of girls taking Computer Science had increased. Indeed the percentage increase compared to 2018, in overall numbers of girls taking Computer Science, was 14 per cent at GCSE and 21.8 per cent at A level, meaning the gender gap closed by 1.3 per cent and 1.5 per cent for each qualification respectively. Even if this current rate of “improvement” is maintained, which is highly unlikely given it’s starting from a small base, it would take until the middle of the century to reach gender parity. That isn’t something we ought to be celebrating.

This is before we get to the issues of socioeconomic disadvantage, ethnic minority background and disability, and whether uptake of computing is in any way representative of these demographics. The situation in this regard is arguably even worse, because we don’t have any readily available information at all.

Even if this current rate of “improvement” is maintained...it would take until the middle of the century to reach gender parity. That isn’t something we ought to be celebrating.

So, how do you go about solving a problem like Computer Science?

There’s broad agreement that getting more young people to take these courses is of vital importance and yet statistics on the problem are patchy and solutions scarce. Nesta is doing two main things to help change that:

  • Expanding the evidence base
  • Finding out what works so we can do more of it.

That is why we have published an Invitation to Tender to look at these issues in detail. This research will collate information on a whole range of diversity figures in secondary computing courses into one place. We’ll also be looking at regional differences and whether someone growing up outside of big cities and known tech-hubs really has the same level of opportunity to access quality computing courses.

In addition, this research will look at what actually works in getting schools to engage a more diverse range of students. There are some great success stories, such as Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, which aims by 2021 to get 50 per cent female students and 50 per cent from disadvantaged backgrounds, but we are keen to find out more examples of schools and colleges that are bucking the trend. We want to work out how they do it and whether it’s replicable. It’s just a start and there is much to be done, but through this research, we hope that we can begin to make exam results day a more positive experience for those of us aiming for a more diverse tech world in the future.

Do you know of schools or colleges that are exceeding the norm when it comes to diversity in computer science education? Do get in touch at: [email protected]

Author

Theo Knott

Theo Knott

Theo Knott

Programme Manager, Education

Theo manages the fairer strand of Nesta's Education work.

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Joysy John

Joysy John

Joysy John

Director of Education

Joysy is the Director of Education, leading Nesta's work in education across innovation programmes, research and investment.

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