Teaching - Informatics
Why are girls shunning computer science?
In France, very few girls are turning towards careers in computing. The reason? A widespread belief that these professions are primarily for boys and preferably for those who are a bit geeky. In order to dispel these prejudices, the Equality and Parity working group of Inria and Irisa organised an open day on 23 April at the Rennes research centre, for 48 students in year 8.
“It is based on an observation, ” says Anne-Cécile Orgerie , one of the nine people behind this initative. “Every year, students in year 10 come to do their observation internship at our research centre, but there are very few girls among them! It is mainly boys who turn up and are interested in computer science professions. There is no reason why girls should be turning away from these professions. We were therefore interested in combatting this stereotype which leads to a kind of employment segregation. This stereotype is clearly already well established by year 10, so we realised we had to work on raising awareness upstream. That’s why we chose to invite year 8 students. ”
Coming from the Pierre Brossolette secondary school in Bruz, on the outskirts of Rennes, 48 students, boys and girls, took part in this first open day designed to break down prejudices. “No, computer science is not a man’s profession. Moreover, there are countries where there is parity in this field. In Romania, for example, the ratio of boys to girls is around 50-50 in higher education courses in computer science.” And in France? “Around 10% are girls. And this proportion is decreasing over time. In the 1980s, for example, there were a lot of female programmers. This is also what we see in the United States, in the filmHidden Figures, which shows these women in charge of calculating flight trajectories for NASA space missions.”
If we go slightly further back in time, “the first computer scientist was also a woman. In this case, the British woman Ada Lovelace. It was she, who, in the 19th century, created the first algorithm. She even envisaged machines that could compose symphonies. Closer to home, we might also mention the American Grace Hopper, the computer scientists and admiral in the US Navy. ” The Queen of Code, as she was known, designed the first compiler and the Cobol language. “More recently, there have been personalities such as Rosa Dieng, one of the first female team leaders at Inria. ”
These computer scientists and a few others were part of a gallery of portraits presented to students as part of the first workshop. “Among them, we had also placed a photo of a comics author. The aim was to show that the job is not type-cast. Computer scientist or cartoonist, it is impossible to guess who does what. It’s not as if it’s written on your face. ” We wanted to do away with the cliché of the pale-faced geek glued to his gaming computer. Second workshop: the pancake making game. “Here, the goal was to make computer science disconnected, i.e. without a computer. The students have to classify a stack of tiles of various sizes and colours in ascending order by turning them over with a spatula. ” The exercise is done in pairs. One person gives the orders and the other carries them out. “At first, it’s simple, and then it gets more complicated because the person deciding can no longer see the tiles. Moreover, they do not know the starting configuration. But even so, they must be able to explain to their teammate how to sort them. To do that, they must say: if a certain tile is on top, then carry out this action. In other words, they must construct a logical loop. That’s the beginning of an algorithm as is found in programming. ”
The last workshop was in the Immersia virtual reality room. With a holographic headset over their eyes, “the young people could experience a demo of a software designed for professional training of medical staff in the operating room. It is a concrete example to show the huge diversity of professions within computer science. ”
Before leaving the boys and girls finally answered a questionnaire that had already been given to them when they first arrived. The questions included: “Is computer science… Difficult? Essential? Only for enthusiasts? Good for shy people? ” The comparison between the answers given before and after, make it possible to see how much progress they made. And the correct answer? “In reality, a typical computer scientist profile does not exist, but there are different profiles for different needs. It is a very diverse job which requires creativity, communication, team work… It is 20% technical and 80% collaborative work. ”