How to use behavioural science to help girls engage with computing

18 February 2021

Dr Kathryn Atherton, Advisor in Education at the Behavioural Insights Team, and a primary author of DfE’s recent report Applying Behavioural Insights to Increase Female Students’ Uptake of STEM Subjects at A level, writes about why girls are under-represented in certain STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) A level subjects, and how we can address it.

Despite outperforming boys in most GCSE STEM subjects, girls are less likely to choose certain STEM A level options: computing, physics, and maths (with girls representing just 13%, 22%, and 39% of examination entries, respectively, in 2019). Importantly, relatively few girls opt for two or more STEM A level subjects (22% of girls vs. 35% of boys in 2019, with only 10% girls vs. 18% of boys taking 3+ STEM subjects), which is a requirement to access many STEM degrees.

As our society becomes increasingly dependent on technology, girls’ under-representation in these STEM options is problematic on two fronts: the ever-widening national STEM skills shortage and increasing gender inequality in access to well-paid, high-status, influential careers.

Why are girls not choosing these STEM A level options?

Gender role socialisation shapes our self-perceptions, personal goals, and aspirations. As such, stereotypes regarding gender and STEM subjects can contribute to girls’ low uptake of these subjects.

First, despite performing well, girls often doubt their ability to do well in these STEM subjects, particularly relative to other subjects. In part, this is because there is a stereotype that these STEM fields are only for very ‘brainy’ people and another stereotype that girls aren’t naturally skilled in these subjects. Key influencers – including parents and teachers – are, on average, less likely to see girls as having an aptitude for these subjects, and more likely to view STEM as a male domain, which translates into less reinforcement and encouragement for girls.

Second, uncertainty about the usefulness of STEM subjects is another major factor. People often see these subjects as applicable to a narrow range of careers and irrelevant to their own lives and goals. This is exacerbated for girls, who are more likely to report aspirations to work with, or help, other people. There is a stereotype that STEM subjects do not help fulfil these goals (with the exception of biological and other health sciences, in which females are not under-represented).

Last, social norms are an important factor. Our behaviour is heavily influenced by our perception of what other people are doing, especially people who we consider to be like ourselves. Girls are relatively less likely than boys to see people ‘like them’ pursuing STEM subjects. STEM subjects do not align well with the stereotypical female gender identity, and girls are less likely to feel a sense of belonging in STEM fields.

What can we do about it?

The approach to increasing uptake of STEM subjects with the most robust evidence is to target parents’ and students’ perceptions of the relevance of STEM subjects.

Professor Judith Harackiewicz, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her colleagues found that encouraging parents to have conversations with their children about the value of STEM options resulted in US high school students taking, on average, nearly a whole extra term of maths and science courses. These researchers provided parents with factual information and testimonials from older students about the usefulness of STEM for a wide range of educational pathways, employment options, and daily life activities, along with practical advice on how to discuss subject choices with their child. This study evaluated the impact of the intervention in a randomised-controlled trial, the gold standard of impact evaluation.

Working for the Department of Education, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), collaborated with Judith Harackiewicz to adapt this parent-focused and website-based intervention for the UK context and then tested it, alongside in-school computerised student exercises, in a project involving KS4 pupils in over 60 English secondary schools. Both the parent-focused and student-focused interventions emphasised the relevance of STEM subjects for a range of educational, employment and daily life activities, as well as the opportunities they afford to work with, and help, other people. Both interventions also made use of relatable student messengers and encouraged reflection on the personal relevance of STEM.

After these interventions, there was a significant increase in high-achieving girls’ stated intentions to study at least two STEM subjects at A level (a two percentage point increase, from 44% to 46%), which was significantly larger for those who received the parent-focused intervention as well as the student-focused one (four percentage points).

These are promising findings and offer insight into practical strategies to help address gender gaps in STEM participation. If the measured change in stated intentions translates into an equivalent two percentage point increase in the number of girls actually taking two or more STEM A levels, and if the interventions were scaled up across the country, this would mean approximately two and a half thousand more girls taking two or more STEM A levels in a given year.

Tips for schools and teachers

Here are some ways that you can apply the research findings in your practice.

1. Target parents

Use communications with parents to help them see the value of computing. Equip them to have conversations with their child about GCSE/A level course choices and about connections between computing and the child’s own interests and goals.

2. Show the relevance

In your lessons, try to show students the relevance of the computing syllabus to real life, and get your students thinking about the relevance of computing to things they really care about.

3. Provide specific encouragement

There is evidence that students are much more likely to select post-16 maths and/or physics if a key adult — typically a family member or teacher — has conveyed to them the worth of the subject, along with the belief that they can do well in it. Make sure you provide this kind of specific encouragement, with regard to computing GCSE/A level, to at least as many girls as boys.

4. Make women in computing visible

Ensure you showcase successful, relatable females in computing fields, at least as often as males, but without explicitly emphasising their gender. And consider inviting well-liked, relatable, older female computing students into your class to talk with, and support, your younger students.

5. Remember to choose your words and actions carefully

If girls feel they have been targeted on the basis of their gender, or if they receive the message that not enough girls currently participate in computing, this could actually backfire and make girls less likely to pursue these subjects. Focus on making the subject inclusive, using the tips above, rather than making explicit statements about gender and computing participation.

Read more about it

DfE and BIT (2020) Applying Behavioural Insights to Increase Female Students’ Uptake of STEM Subjects at A Level

Gender Balance in Computing

The Gender Balance in Computing (GBIC) research programme is an amazing opportunity to find out what works to encourage girls to develop an interest during their primary and secondary school years, and increase the number of young women who choose to study computer science at GCSE and A level. Register your interest to take part in the projects and join the GBIC Schools Network here.