New Publication: Computer science club for girls and boys – a survey study on gender differences

In 2016/2017, the concept of “maker community” or “coding club” was relatively new in Sweden. The non-profit organizations that arranged these maker communities saw the need for a fun, hands-on, and informal way for children to learn computing where their interest in different aspects of computing would be the driving force to learn. Many of these initiatives also had a social-justice plan, such as broadening participation and combating negative computing stereotypes. As many might know, the field of computing is strongly male-biased. This is also reflected in the context of maker communities, where many have reported difficulties in recruiting female participants.

My name is Tina Vrieler and I have written this blog post about one of my papers that I published with Aletta Nylén and Åsa Cajander. We were interested in exploring girls and boys’ views who are members of a newly established maker community. Specifically, we were interested in studying the children’s perception regarding five aspects of Computer Science (CS), namely:

· Their parents’ attitudes and values in science and CS

· Their appreciation of CS and their engagement in science and CS

· Their social support in their interest in science and CS

· The term computer science

· Their future study and work aspirations related to science and CS

The survey was sent to all parent members in December 2016. We thought that the context was unique. Since the maker community was established only a few months before the survey, the members who found their way to the maker community would probably already be interested in computing. Therefore, we hypothesized that the children would be 1) already interested in science and CS and 2) would perceive their parents to have supportive CS attitudes. Our hypotheses were later confirmed in our findings where most children of both genders selected “interesting” as the reason they want to work in science or CS in the future. However, when we asked if they would like to work specifically in computing in the future, it turned out that boys saw themselves working in the field of CS to a greater extent than girls. This makes us wonder what other science fields are more attractive to girls than CS and why?   

Unsurprisingly, there was no difference in how the girls and boys perceive their parents’ attitudes and values in science and CS. In other words, the children in this study perceive similar positive parental attitudes and values towards science and CS. It is now well established from various studies that family influence is significant in developing girls’ interest, values, and self-perception in CS. Family influence can ultimately lead to girls choosing CS as their field of study and occupation. However, from our survey study results, it seems that parents’ favourable view of science and CS is not enough to convey girls to aspire for a CS career.

The construct “appreciating CS” has to do with how the children value CS knowledge in their life. The results of this study indicate that boys, more so than girls, find it necessary and valuable to know a lot about CS and believe that CS knowledge is relevant for other young people. Boys were also found to engage in science and CS through popular media to a significantly greater extent than girls. In terms of the perception of what computer science means, both girls and boys in this study relate the word primarily with technical aspects, such as “programming”, “games and robots”, and “binary notations”. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the computing activities they usually come in contact with. This makes us think about the need to widen CS in teaching practices, as there is evidence that this will attract more diverse students.

This study showed that boys tend to primarily talk to friends, and girls tend to mostly talk to family about natural science, technology, and CS. This result might be because there are fewer girls who participate in computing activities. This finding is concerning considering that having like-minded peers is decisive to maintain interest in CS. Educators need to reflect on how they can build more robust support networks for girls. A few ideas on how this can be done is detailed in the article.

There are more findings in the article, but we’ve included the most central ones due to this blog’s limit of space. It is important to note that we did not get as many answers from girls as possible. So the results can only be interpreted as an indication of gender differences rather than actual differences. Nevertheless, with the findings in mind, we see that gender bias still exists even when the children supposedly have the best opportunities to develop aspirations in CS. Why is this the case, and what can educators do to strengthen students’ social and cultural resources? These are pertinent questions, and we aim to find answers for them in future research.

You find the full paper here and can read it: