Is 'Code Club for Schools' Contributing to the Legacy of a Masculine Science?
By Rebecca Ciupka
Within two weeks of completing the Education, Public Policy and Equity master's degree, focusing on the history of masculine sciences and the hidden curriculum, I joined a Technology graduate scheme and became a ‘Software Engineer’. While I was excited to start an esteemed graduate programme and learn a brand-new subject area, I longed to continue my research into the relationship between gender and education. Therefore, when we were given the opportunity to assist in the Code Club for Schools programme, I was thrilled. This was my chance to reconnect to my love of education whilst in a role which, admittedly, was not my desired vocation. I also saw it as an opportunity to observe how primary school students reacted to a scientific programming language. Despite women being some of the earliest computer programmers, Computer Science has undoubtedly been branded as a masculine subject. This is reflected in the number of girls taking the subject at A-Level compared to boys. According to the 2017 figures published by the Department of Education, only 0.4% of female students taking A-Levels chose Computer Science, compared to 4.5% of males (Department for Education, 2018).
With this knowledge, I arrived at the school intent on proving that anyone, regardless of gender, can program. It has been shown time and time again, based on secondary school grades, that girls are similarly or more proficient than boys across most of the sciences, yet fewer girls pursue scientific careers (Hill et al, 2010). Having thoroughly researched this topic, I had my own theories about why this happens, and was anxious to see whether I would see evidence of these in the classroom.
Despite my unrelenting nerves, the first lesson turned out to be surprisingly comfortable and enjoyable. The children were enthused, and eager to get started. Students were given a worksheet to follow and worked either on their own or in pairs. On the back of the worksheet was a challenge for the children to complete, leading to a competitive atmosphere of who can finish first!
Whilst the students were working, I took the opportunity to move around the room talking to them, gauging how both boys and girls reacted to coding. All the male and female students were extremely positive towards the subject, although I suspect this may have been partly due to the exciting diversion from their usual curriculum. As the lesson went on, and no stark difference between the genders appeared, I considered that perhaps these 10-year olds were too young to have already assumed these education gender roles. Or, even better, maybe they are being taught in an environment which consciously rejected the propagation of gender norms.
This abruptly changed when I realized that one of the female students, let’s call her Marie, was refusing to participate. Marie told me that she didn’t have anyone to work with and so didn’t want to join in. Her reluctance and discomfort with including herself in the lesson prompted me to reflect that whilst there is nothing innately masculine about the sciences, it is often packaged in a masculine way. As a result, females (or males) who perform femininity may not feel that they belong in STEM. In that moment I realized that, despite my good intentions, even the way we were currently teaching coding appealed to traits traditionally understood as masculine. In that lesson alone, we presented coding as both isolating and competitive, two traits commonly associated with masculinity. Isolating, as students were encouraged to follow the exercise individually, and competitive, as we set challenges and framed the work as a competition.
As mentioned, coding can give the impression of being quite independent work, something which doesn’t fit with the perceived feminine ideal of collaboration. Therefore, is the answer to instead teach these STEM subjects in a way which appeals to the 'feminine' nature? This question itself can lead to quite harmful suggestions, which may encourage binary gender roles. For example, when discussing this issue with another colleague, I learned that in another Code Club for Schools program, the facilitators decided that in order to attract the female students to coding they brought along textiles and electro-fashion. Actions such as these encourage the dichotomy of ‘only boys like robots’ and ‘only girls like fashion’. This dichotomy is reflected if you visit the Kitronic website itself (supplier of the Code Club for Schools resources); the Robotics tab is colour-coded as blue and E-textiles tab is (shockingly) pink.
This is where the pedagogy becomes troublesome. The goal that the Code Club facilitators had by bringing along the e-textiles was a positive one: to encourage girls into STEM by showing them that STEM wasn’t an exclusively masculine subject. We want to encourage girls into STEM by encouraging them feel like they belong, but do we want to enforce gender norms on the way to achieving that goal; do the ends justify the means? What if those facilitators approached the issue in a different way? They still brought the robots and the e-textiles to the class, but told the children that they can play with whatever they wanted. Would this be a better way of opening coding up to both the feminine and masculine without enforcing gender norms? Or would students still fall into those gender traps, as the dichotomy still exists? Whilst I do not have a definitive answer, it is clear that STEM needs to change itself to invite more young people with traditionally 'feminine' qualities to feel wanted and valued. In addition to this, schools should ensure they are promoting a growth mind-set amongst students. If teachers encourage students to understand that scientific ability is not innate but can be improved with dedication and practice, this may help invalidate the harmful myth that boys are naturally better at science (Hill et al, 2010).
Programming does not have to be competitive and isolating. Having been surrounded at work by a team who are all proficient software engineers and developers, I have noticed that programming is very collaborative and communicative – especially amongst the younger programmers. Maybe if we taught coding in the collaborative way I witness, Marie wouldn’t have been immediately put off the subject, but may have enjoyed it. Whilst the examples I offer here may seem anecdotal, they reflect wider issues that schools and the sciences often neglect to consider – boys continue to have an advantage in the sciences, and girls' discomfort is just one of many reasons why the level playing field is a myth. It is vital that girls are not blamed or encouraged to change in order to thrive in STEM, but instead policy makers and educators should continue to consider how they may be subconsciously contributing to gender inequality in education. Ultimately, our aim must be to ensure that young people of all genders can feel like they belong in the world of coding.
Department for Education. (2018). A level and other 16 to 18 results: 2016 to 2017 (revised). [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/a-level-and-other-16-to-18-results-2016-to-2017-revised [Accessed 29 Jan. 2019].
Hill, C., Corbett, C., St Rose, A. (2010). Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington: AAUW.
For more information on gender impacting subject choice:
Riddell, S. (2012). Gender and the politics of the curriculum. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
For more information on the history of women in science:
Schiebinger, L. (1989). The Mind Has No Sex? Women in Origins of Modern Science. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
If you wish to get in touch with Rebecca or have further questions, you can contact her via her member profile.