​CSIRO concerned with decline in young females studying computing

A report by the CSIRO's Digital Careers education program has called for Australia to actively help encourage young women to partake in computer-based studies.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The CSIRO's Digital Careers education program has said it is alarmed at the lack of young females studying computer science at primary and secondary school, which is a national concern Australia needs to address if the country wants to meet the needs of the future workforce.

In its report [PDF], Female participation in school computing: reversing the trend, Digital Careers says that social pressure, a lack of self-belief, and the perception that computer science is not suited for girls were identified as key factors influencing young female students.

To combat the social pressure influencing the decision of young females, the report suggests sustaining their interest in computing through intervention in years 7-8, which was highlighted as the time when participation and interest in such studies begins to decline.

The report also found that while science, technology, mathematics, and science (STEM) studies have had a strong presence in mandatory schooling curriculum from kindergarten since the 1960s, computer science has not had the same exposure.

The report did highlight that the percentage of women participating in STEM areas has been steadily increasing, however the number of women participating in computer science has continued to steadily decrease since the mid 1980s.

While university female participation rates are low, the report says that senior school female participation rates in computer education are lower still.

"Student participation in senior high school computing subjects in Australia's three most populous states, show a sustained decline from around 19,000 in 2007 to 13,000 in 2015," the report says.

In order to combat the skills shortage in females, Digital Careers suggests that initiatives linked to the school curriculum are most likely to be successful in normalising digital technologies subjects.

It recommends that introducing activities such code clubs for young females, particularly in early primary and late secondary school when there is less social pressure, could be a possible solution.

As previously highlighted by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, Digital Careers said Australia is facing a skills shortage.

As computing jobs are predicted to make up two thirds of all new jobs in STEM-related fields, Digital Careers said it is critical Australia addresses this gap with the current generation of students.

Also of key concern to the education body are the role models young females have when it comes to tech, and they highlighted the need to address the preconceptions of parents and caregivers and encourage them to actively provide exposure to computing.

Kate Burleigh, managing director of Intel Australia, believes that a business is likely to benefit from having more females in innovation and leadership positions, and said that, most importantly, employing more females is the right thing to do.

"From the 'short poppy syndrome' to persistent stereotypes about ICT being the domain of geeky boys, the result is clear: girls are missing out on learning skills that are becoming increasingly more important and valued," she said.

"This research is important because it evaluates the solutions, which is necessary. If it was a straightforward issue, we would have solved this issue a long time ago."

Burleigh also said that females should be getting their fair share of the jobs of the future, adding that it cannot happen without the right education or the confidence to seek such jobs.

While speaking at the Data 61 Live 2016 event in Sydney earlier this year, Burleigh said it is the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) that is hindering the nation's challenge of getting more students involved in STEM.

"I have two daughters of my own and one of them is a great humanities student and the other is more maths and science focused," she said. "My year 11 daughter said it's just not practical playing for the best score in her ATAR [to choose STEM subjects].

"The ATAR is not helping our challenge at the moment around getting more students taking up STEM."

She said it was obvious that Australia has a crisis in terms of not enough students adopting STEM-based subjects whilst at primary school and high school.

Infosys also reported previously that young Australians were ill-prepared for the digital economy that stands before them.

Infosys found 50 percent of young Australians believe their education did not prepare them for what to expect from working life, and 58 percent of respondents expect those with computer science skills to be more likely to have a successful career.

Despite this view, young Australians were found to be the least confident of their technical abilities and job prospects in the innovation age, and whilst they are highly aware of the need to learn new skills, Australians are also the least interested in improving their STEM knowledge.

Less than a fifth wanted to develop data skills, build mobile apps, or learn how to code; even fewer -- just 3.41 percent -- had a desire to work for a startup over a large company.

According to the Australian government, 55 percent of STEM graduates are female, but only one in four IT graduates and one in 10 engineering graduates are women.

It said women occupy fewer than one in five senior researcher positions at universities and research institutions in the country and account for approximately one quarter of the overall STEM workforce.

"We want to be a national culture of innovation, of risk takers, because as we do that, we grow the whole ecosystem of innovation right across the economy," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said previously. "As we become more experienced, more innovative, more agile, and more prepared to take on risks we become a culture of ideas because it is the ideas boom which will secure our prosperity in the future."

CSIRO's Digital Careers is a collaborative initiative of government, industry, research, primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions such as universities and TAFE, with the organisation focused on reducing the critical shortage of Australian IT professionals.

The report was commissioned by Digital Careers education program, sponsored by Intel Australia, and led by Dr Jason Zagami from Griffith University.

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