Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Are stereotypes continuing to widen the gender gap in coding education?

Despite all that’s been said and done — notably the new(ish) computing curriculum and the rise in after-school coding clubs, most girls’ perception of coding and engineering hasn’t drastically changed. It’s still ‘not for them’.

It’s an issue that has been addressed with a multitude of campaigns, such as Google’s Made With Code program and the European Ada Awards, and more advice is being provided on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) focused careers — but the fact that only 14 per cent of the STEM workforce in the UK is made up of women suggests that these measures aren’t having much of an impact.

Why, in the 21st century, is coding not appealing more to female students? Only a quarter of girls aged eight to 12 say they know anything about engineering, and those that do say it’s ‘too difficult’ and ‘more for boys’ — which is evidence to confirm that there is still a social stigma attached, despite efforts to remove it.

As a society, we seem to be investing a lot of time and money in trying to achieve gender equality for adults, when perhaps we should be getting to the root of the problem and understanding why is there a gap amongst children. Are imposed gender stereotypes from a young age the problem?

Although some, more obvious, adult gender biases are seen as outrageous in our society (one example is the response to the ‘Bic’ pens for women campaign), the biases children experience on a daily basis seem to go unnoticed. It seems that as adults we are sensitive to sexism, yet many of us don’t consider the potential problem in allowing young children to grow up believing that boys and girls are so different.

Do separate toys and games, and comments such as ‘boys will be boys and girls will be girls’ really make sense in a world where we’re striving to achieve gender equality?

To close the gender gap, we need to eliminate centuries of cultural conditioning — such as when parents and teachers unnoticingly encourage girls to internalise their low expectations, while boys are more likely to be told to ‘try harder’. This conditioning is also present in children’s toys, books, TV shows, games, and the advertising that surrounds us too. Sadly, it makes more sense financially to market princesses and cooking sets to girls, and superheroes and cars to boys.

All you need to do is type ‘Girls’ Toys’ and ‘Boys’ Toys’ into Google and look at the images in the results, to see how obvious this is. You will immediately notice a sea of pink for the girls — cooking sets, dolls houses, make-up kits and Barbies. Replace ‘toys’ with ‘games’ and the imbalance is even more visible. Free online games for young girls include ‘Barbie’s Fashion Dream Store’, ‘Miraculous Hero Kiss’ and ‘My Pretty Pedicure’.

For young boys there are cars, superheroes, robots, dinosaurs, helicopters, sports…the list goes on. These types of toys and games emphasise that there are many different ways to be a boy — adventurers, superheroes, builders, explorers, scientists; what these have in common is that they all require trial and error and an element of courage. Entertainment for girls encourages passiveness, a focus on how they look and aspirations to be perfect.

What can we do to address this problem and eventually resolve it? Toys that challenge and encourage children without pandering to gender biases is one way. Some great examples of this can be seen with games such as ‘Technology Will Save Us’ and ‘GoldieBlox’.

The response I’ve been involved with is ‘Erase All Kittens’ (E.A.K.) — a web-based, Mario-style platform game designed to inspire both girls and boys to learn practical coding skills, whilst leveraging their creativity and critical thinking skills at the same time.

In E.A.K., children can edit real code that governs the game’s environment, enabling them to build and fix levels as they play, using HTML and CSS languages. Our aim is to eliminate the fear that many girls initially have of coding, and empower them with practical skills through a highly gamified and story driven approach. Parents can also spend time playing alongside their children at home, which means they too can develop an understanding of coding, which hasn’t previously been an option.

Interestingly, it’s been found that girls’ grades in science and maths correlate directly with the level of anxiety that they have about those subjects. I believe that gender biases in our society are influencing girls to want to look and be perfect — and perhaps as a result they are not as courageous or willing to try and fail in the same way that boys are. This leads to fewer girls taking an interest in STEM subjects, which require those characteristics, and in turn it’s leading to less women pursuing careers in these fields.

Gender-biased products are always going to be there — but at least now there are more options. If we truly want girls and boys to grow up to have equal opportunities, it’s essential that we place more importance on treating and encouraging them in a similar way from a young age.

Dee Saigal is the CEO and Creative Director of Erase All Kittens, a story-driven game that provides children with knowledge of both computational thinking and professional coding languages, to effectively prepare them for 21st Century degrees and careers.