Female performance and participation in computer science - a national picture

Dec 03, 2019

Peter Kemp, Billy Wong and Miles Berry

The change in the English computing curriculum and the shift towards computer science (CS) has been closely observed by other countries. Female participation remains a concern in most jurisdictions, but female attainment in CS is relatively unstudied. Using the English national pupil database, we analysed all exam results (n=5,370,064) for students taking secondary school exams in 2016, focusing on those students taking GCSE CS (n=60,736) contrasting this against ICT (n=67,359).

Combining gender with ethnicity and the IDACI poverty indicator, we find that females from the poorest areas were more likely to take CS than those from the richest areas and CS was more popular amongst ethnic minority females than white females. ICT was far more equitable for females and poorer students than CS.

CS females typically got better grades than their male peers. However, when controlling for average attainment in other subjects, males got 0.31 of a grade higher. Female relative underperformance in CS was most acute amongst large female cohorts and with girls studying in mixed-gender schools. Girls did significantly better than boys in English when controlling for CS scores, supporting theories around female relative strengths lying outside STEM subjects.

The move to introduce CS into the English curriculum and the removal of the ICT qualifications look to be having a negative impact on female participation and attainment in computing. Using the theory of self-efficacy we argue that the shift towards CS might decrease the number of girls choosing further computing qualifications or pursuing computing as a career. Computing curriculum designers and teachers need to carefully consider the inclusive nature of their computing courses.

Originally published in ACM TOCE 20:1, Authors’ preprint available.