Getting girls excited about coding through play
The figures change from year to year – but the proportion of women in IT remains in the basement every year. And the proportion in IT education is even lower: 14.5% of ICT professionals in Switzerland were women in 2018 and for ICT diplomas, 11% went to women. The general trend is downwards, similar to large parts of the western world. And this despite all the promotional measures for girls. Since Switzerland is an attractive place to live and work, the lack of women is not really a problem for the Swiss ICT economy. The lack of women can be replaced quite easily by importing skilled workers. The latter also prevents wage growth due to scarcity, because the imported skilled workers come from markets with lower wages. Apart from that, the basic shortage of really good ICT specialists can only be remedied by further qualification in the profession. Importing foreigners with professional experience saves the Swiss economy further training costs. The side effect: the dominance of men shapes the ICT culture in Switzerland. The focus on clever arguments instead of systematic analyses, the playing of power games as an end in itself, the focus on formalities instead of a holistic view, the prioritisation of technology over user needs, the aggression that is too frequent in some places, all this is part of the price we pay for male dominance. The interesting question is therefore: Is it in the nature of information and communication technologies that it is less interesting for girls than for boys? Attentive readers will probably have noticed that I use the abbreviation ICT instead of IT, i.e. I speak of information and communication technologies. This is not entirely without intention. One of the social clichés is that women are more curious and communicative than men. Two out of three letters in ICT are therefore attributable to girls. Why then is the ratio in real education only 1:8? Is it societal prejudice? We don’t know. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that computers are a boy thing. And there is no experiment that could rule out cultural imprinting. Man is a cultural being. His biological predisposition in relation to social matters is not measurable. We have very little evidence of the innate. And even these are not the final answer, because we know that social conditions can change the genetic make-up. Therefore, we can only speculate about the nature of the different affinity for technology between boys and girls. I would therefore like to focus on the one prejudice that I find most convincing. It is “You have to be really interested in the subject to be good at it. “I spent my student years in a community where this was dogma. It was a fairly typical community within the mathematics and physics students that existed at my home university at the time. Its members were different from the others in that they wanted to understand what their particular subject was all about. In my discipline, mathematics, we often talked about what makes one a good mathematician, or a good mathematician. And we agreed that mathematics without proof is nothing. When a colleague once remarked that she was only interested in the theorem, not in the proof, our crushing verdict was reached: she is not one of us. In the sciences – to which mathematics does not belong – there is no proof. But the prejudice that you have to be really interested in the actual essence of a thing in order to produce valuable achievements, that applies almost everywhere. In computer science, it takes the form that you have to want to play with IT innovations, that you have to enjoy trying things out and, more specifically, that you have to enjoy coding. Hyphenated computer scientists are only users and are therefore considered unsatisfactory, unless they are also creative coders and thus real computer scientists. This is where it gets interesting, in many respects – but also in relation to the gender issue. What is computer science? Is computer science more mathematics or more art, that is one of the controversial questions. Warren Sack has contributed significantly to this discourse with his book “The Software Arts”. I am currently working on aspects of this question with an artist and philosopher of language, but I would like to limit myself to two demarcations that shed a lot of light. On the one hand, computer science distinguishes itself from technology not only by considering mistakes the most natural thing in the world – which, incidentally, has a reputation for turning women off. Computer science also distinguishes itself through the joy of play. Where other engineers tinker with solutions, computer scientists usually play with the tools to do so. Even technology managers with technology training often don’t understand this. Play in computer science is for learning, but it is often purposeless and childlike: an exploration of the possibilities of new technologies. That makes it likeable. It causes a lot of conflict with managers. And that just about defines the disdain for hyphenated disciplines: These play too little! Computer science, on the other hand, distinguishes itself from mathematics by implementing solutions instead of just conceiving and understanding them. In coding practice, self-discovery of an algorithm is even considered anti-pattern, i.e. punishable by the gods – until the last remnant of successor software is disposed of forever. The reason is simple: very few computer scientists can design good algorithms, they design the application of algorithms. Some mathematicians – I don’t know any women among them – are outraged because, despite a perceived 15-year research backlog, computer science gets rapturous applause for sloppy rip-offs of mathematical knowledge. Conversely, computer scientists consider theories that do not implement solutions to be worthless. The demarcations are thus connected with mutual rejections, some of which go very deep. They may not apply to all parts of computer science, but they are so present that it would be a wonder if many girls were interested in computer science. This is because the so-called common sense only approves of boys playing as an end in itself – and even then mostly only if the toy is something right, for example a technical tool. If you want to have more female ICT professionals, you have to create attractive play opportunities for girls to play with IT tools without a purpose. In addition, it is important to declare playing with these possibilities to be a typical girl’s behaviour. As long as the conviction that boys play with technology tools and girls with the simulation of social behaviour is anchored in the minds, everything else will be largely in vain. Is there no alternative to changing the IT culture? Yes, as far as power games are concerned, no as far as playing with IT tools is concerned. Alternatively, can’t we change education? Yes, at universities, where prior knowledge can be made irrelevant, no at Swiss universities of applied sciences, where practical work experience is a prerequisite. The same applies to other questions about possible alternatives. Of course, the nature of computer science is not necessarily something permanent, just as the nature of other disciplines is not permanent. Mathematics, for example, has changed substantially since I studied it. Today’s graduates can do very different things than we learned back then. Accordingly, they make different value judgements. As a result, different people will study mathematics in the future than in the past. Such a change will eventually also happen in computer science. But we cannot bring about this change by claiming that computer science is a social discipline. If we want to get more girls interested in ICT professions, we have to promote the essence of computer science to them, not the side aspects.
- Warren Sack: The Software Arts, MIT Press, 2019
- ICT Switzerland Education Commission: Position Paper For the Digital Future – More Women in Computer Science! 2020