Girls’ lack of interest in ICT is clearly evident by senior secondary school.

By the time students leave secondary school there is a large gap between girls and boys studying computing subjects and those interested in an ICT career.

Female participation in IT subjects is among the lowest of all VCE subjects. There is also evidence that girls are less confident with IT tasks than boys.

Higher education statistics confirm female students’ lack of interest in ICT courses.

It is not therefore surprising that significantly fewer women than men are employed in the Australian ICT industry - less than 20 percent of the ICT workforce.

Under-utilisation of the female perspective is a problem for the ICT industry and is leading to a lack of female input in design, communication and creativity.

This was the key motivation for a research project. Our team felt compelled to consider possible solutions that had not been previously tried.

The ACS agreed with our aims and became a financial partner in the project.

Research suggests that the barriers to girls contemplating ICT careers are established by lower secondary school and that how ICT subjects are taught has a major impact on girls’ attitudes towards ICT.

Many girls, for example, consider these subjects to be ‘too theoretical, rigidly structured and boring’.

Research also suggests that larger intervention programs directed at a larger population are more likely to be effective than smaller projects.

We could see the need for a larger scale, school based intervention program which used educationally sound materials specifically designed to excite girls about ICT.

Digital Divas

To address the lack of interest by girls, our team (Catherine Lang, La Trobe University; Helen Forgasz and Julie Fisher, Monash University; Annemieke Craig, Deakin University) designed and ran a program called ‘Digital Divas’ in nine Victorian secondary schools and one NSW school between 2009 and 2013.

The curriculum was designed to be a stand-alone subject within a school’s curriculum and excite girls’ interest in ICT.

The girls who participated were aged between 13 and 16.

The all-girl classes allocated to Digital Divas varied from school to school, with a minimum expectation of one double period and one single period per week, for one semester. Each module of work (there were seven in all) was written to provide 10 to 12 hours of class time.

The aim was to ensure girls were introduced to IT through topics that interested them like food, fashion, image, not taught applications in isolation.

Further resources were provided to enhance the classroom teaching including assessment sheets and instructions for teachers.

Examples of the modules included:

  • ‘Chef’s delight’ which challenged the girls to design an online menu which involved collecting and analysing meals and food data using a spreadsheet.
  • ‘Fab and Famous’ taught girls how images are manipulated in magazines and introduced them to Photoshop.

Students’ interest in keeping a diary and story-telling was leveraged to introduce object oriented programming concepts through the Alice story telling programming application.

Coupled with the modules we also recognised the importance of role models. For each school a female IT university student was employed to be a class role model and work with the girls on a weekly basis. We called these women our ‘Expert Divas’.

In addition one woman from industry visited each school at least once a semester and talked to the girls about what it was like to work in IT.

Our results

The data we collected included pre and post surveys with teachers and girls, interviews with teachers (pre and post) and focus groups with the girls pre and post their participation.

We found that it is true that girls are generally turned off by IT; however the good news is that we can change that with a concerted effort and good curriculum design.

Our research found that:

  • The curriculum did excite girls’ interest in IT. Some of their responses were “Going on Photoshop because it was fun”, “Playing with computers, it was fun”, “How to do a menu because Vlookup was fun”.
  • Girls’ computer self-efficacy improved. The post survey asked girls if their confidence in IT had changed, 76% said yes. The girls’ comments included “I'm not afraid to try out new things”, “I try to do things I haven't done before”, “I used to be a bit reluctant exploring other programs because I simply didn't know how to use it.”
  • We did change girls’ stereotypical views about IT that it is not just for boys or men, girls can and do also do IT. The girls are also now more aware of what working in IT can be and that IT as a career is a possibility. We asked them in a post survey if their ideas had changed, 51 percent said they had. “I didn’t really think IT was for girls and then this class has really like changed my thinking completely.”

“Well last time I thought it was guys and being kind of like geeky types, staring at the computer all day with coffee and just like hours of coding and not sleeping at all. Now it’s like you can go out, flexibility, talk to people face to face, not through computers, and not coding the whole time.”

  • The girls’ attitude and interest in IT was sustained. A year after the program finished a number of focus groups were held with girls who participated in the program. The comments from the girls indicate that their attitude had changed. “Yeah, well, it is very interesting and usually, before Digital Divas, we would have thought, IT, no. I might go over and do something else. Now, after it, we’ve gone, “Hey, that’s actually not a bad idea.”

“I think potentially, I could…in the sense of incorporating the technology we have and the design element because I’m really interested in using different designs with website designing particularly and advertising and marketing and things like that.”

From the perspective of schools the program has also been a success. Our initial program was to run in schools for one semester. However, a number of schools have continued to run the program even though we were not providing full support.

Interviews with the teachers confirmed that the teachers enjoyed teaching Digital Divas and saw it as an important program for girls.

As far as we know the program is still running in several schools.

Since the end of our data collection phase (Sem 1 2012) at least six schools have contacted us for information. The teaching modules which include teacher instructions, student worksheets and some work samples can be freely downloaded.

We would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank our industry partners without whose support this project would not have been possible.

The ACS and the board of Victorian ICT for women provided significant funds and women to speak to the girls in schools.

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development also provided funding as did Brentwood Secondary College.

Many schools provided the time of the teachers and school’s facilities to run the program.

Professor Julie Fisher is from the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University.