Like most technology education academies, NewTechKids struggles to attract equal numbers of girls and boys to our programs.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Most of the time, parents don’t even present computer science and programming activities as options for their daughters. They conclude that computer science ‘isn’t a fit’ for their daughters although it’s often ‘perfect’ for their sons. Girls themselves have told us that learning about technology is hard and often doesn’t reflect their interests. The clincher: they don’t want to be the only girls in the program.
Here’s what we’ve observed based on our experiences teaching girls over the past three years in after-school and holiday programs as well as classes taught as part of school curriculum. These are teacher observations, not quantitative research.
- From ages 4-6, girls show the same aptitude, problem-solving skills and ability to master fundamental computer science concepts as boys do. They are natural systems thinkers who can break problems into smaller parts in order to solve them.
- By age 7, differences in skills and mindset begin to emerge in girls and boys. Girls often lack experience with processes such as designing, building and programming and in working with tangible objects, including building blocks, LEGO, models and programmable toys. While they demonstrate better teamwork and communication skills than boys, they often lack confidence in presenting their ideas and struggle more with experimentation, prototyping and handling failure than boys.
We think that it’s imperative for parents to help spark their daughters’ ongoing interest in technology. Parents should help them cultivate the necessary skills and mindset to think like technologists. This will prepare them to navigate a world of constant and rapid technological development and be conscious consumers of technology.
Here’s 7 tips for parents who want to raise daughters to be successful technologists.
1. From early on, ensure that girls are exposed to a mix of different types of play. Teach them how to design, make, build and program with tangible objects such as building blocks, LEGO, and Do-It-Yourself and robotics kits. We have observed that girls come to our programs with weaker designing, prototyping, building and programming skills than boys because they have not had enough exposure to these types of activities. (We have observed that children from low-income neighbourhoods also lack these skills.) This lack of exposure limits the quality of the solutions girls develop and undermines their confidence to present ideas and push back against more confident, dominant boys.
2. Provide girls with lots of practice in assembling things, following written instructions (recipes, everyday items), replacing conventional technology, and configuring new devices. These activities pave the way to understand computer science concepts such as systems, algorithms, commands and sequence while helping them become comfortable with decision-making, trial and error, troubleshooting, handling failure and persevering. Even changing lightbulbs is a teachable moment when it comes to technology. Questions to ask: What wattage is best? What shape of lightbulb is best? Should we purchase a dimmable LED light or a normal light bulb? Is a dimmable LED light worth the extra cost?
3. Encourage girls to dissassemble things, especially old electronic devices. We often include classes about technology systems in our programs during which students ages 7-12 rip apart old laptops. This is a revelation for many of our female students since many of them have never done something like this. There’s nothing like discovering what’s underneath the electronics and technology we use in everyday life and that devices are systems with parts which work together to perform specific tasks. Demystification makes technology less intimidating and more accessible.
4. Discuss technology in the context of the interests and hobbies of girls and boys. For example, sensor technology is used in all kinds of sports and performing arts activities. Discuss how Hawkeye ball-tracking technology is used in tennis matches or how sensor technology is used by fencers and runners to track performance and enable ballerinas to ‘paint’ beautiful art.
5. Teach girls (and boys) about female technologists and their contributions to society. Too much popular discourse around technology focuses on male tech entrepreneurs. Children, especially girls, need to learn about women such as Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton, Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and others who have and are making major contributions to the development of key technologies.
6. Register them in computer science or programming activities, either alone or with a friend. Until computer science education becomes part of formal school curriculum, girls will continue to be under-represented in technology education. Exposure and experience in predominantly-male learning environments will provide them with resilience, perseverance and inspiration to create more diverse, inclusive technology teams.
7. Our most important tip for parents, lobby for computer science and technological literacy to be integrated into formal primary school curriculum. This will ensure that all girls receive technology education in a mixed gender context.