The number of female students choosing to sit GCSE computer science in the UK saw a year-on-year drop in 2021.
Female candidate numbers dropped from 16,919 in 2020 to 16,549 this year, despite the overall number of students sitting the exam seeing a year-on-year increase.
“It’s disappointing to see that the number of girls taking GCSE computing and engineering has decreased this year,” said Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Skillsoft.
“There are so many programmes aimed at getting girls interested in these areas, but we need to go further to challenge and eradicate the old-fashioned views that are clearly still very much ingrained in the public consciousness. It’s no coincidence that while most girls show some interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects at 10 or 11 years of age, this tends to wane by age 15.”
The number of students taking computing at GCSE level has varied over the past five years. While numbers increased year-on-year in 2021 to 79,964, up from 78,459 the previous year, 2020’s figures were a drop from the 80,027 candidates who took the subject in 2019.
A lack of visible role models, stereotypes about who pursues STEM careers and what they involve, and a lack of inclusion in the UK’s technology sector are just some of the reasons young women lose interest in subjects such as computing as time goes on.
This is the second year in a row the number of girls taking computing at GCSE level in the UK has dropped.
Other STEM areas also saw a decline in female students, such as mathematics and engineering, yet some subjects saw an increase in the number of female candidates, as was the case in biology, physics and chemistry.
Despite lower numbers, girls still outperformed boys when it came to computing grades, with 48.9% of girls achieving at least a 7/A grade, as opposed to 37.3% of boys, and 87% achieving at least a 4/C or higher compared with 81.3% of boys.
There was a significant increase in grades this year, possibly because of the way results were graded because due to the pandemic, with 39.7% of students who sat the computing exam achieving at least a 7/A compared with 33.7% last year.
“It’s also important to acknowledge that the students receiving their results today have faced an unprecedented life-changing event, with the pandemic forcing them to adapt to remote learning and study in isolation away from their friends,” said Geoff Smith, CEO of talent management consultancy Grayce.
“These young people are incredibly resilient and if they’re provided with the right training programmes to help them develop the digital skills most in demand by businesses today, our future industries should be in good hands.”
In the past, girls have claimed they regret not taking STEM subjects for longer, with many dropping them due to industry and social stereotypes, then realising later that knowledge of these subjects would have been useful for their future careers.
To combat the UK’s technology skills gap, the government is trying to encourage a shift towards lifelong learning to ensure that even if people do not gain skills in areas such as computing and digital technology early on in their careers, they should still be able to learn them later.
Madhavi Kotecha, engineering team lead for Robotic Pick at Ocado Technology, said there would be learning opportunities beyond school for career-based tech skills.
“Even if this week’s results weren’t quite what students hoped for, there’s so much room for learning beyond school – and at any stage of life,” she said. “I’m currently undertaking a masters degree in technology management to ensure my skills continue to grow at each stage of my career. Many great tech professionals come through non-traditional routes too, so the door’s never closed.”