Girls love computers! …don’t they?

Helena Li

July 16, 2014

A few weeks ago I happened upon two articles that surprised me. The first was about how in some states absolutely no girls took the AP Computer Science exam. The second article was about how Lego was finally making female figurines for science sets.

As a counselor for high school students, I witness AP exams becoming the talk of the town during spring every year. Students gear up for finals, SATs and ACTs, and countless AP exams each May. I also get to know every student’s proposed major — computer science has risen to the top 3 in the past few years. In my own students, I definitely did not notice a difference in the interest of computer science between boys and girls.

Even though I already knew that fewer girls gravitate toward STEM fields overall, the particular piece of news that Wyoming, Montana, and Mississippi had no females taking the APCS exam in 2013 truly bothered me, especially because engineers and developers are in such high demand. If these are the most sought after jobs, how will girls contribute to shaping our world if we don’t encourage them along that path?

I did more digging. The most recent data I could find for APCS was for 2012 on the CollegeBoard website. The numbers I saw were even more astounding than I expected, and I shamefully dusted off my calculator that had been living at the bottom of my drawer. I never liked math – ironic, I know.

I saw that during 2012 in the US, only 4,893 girls took the APCS exam, as opposed to 21,210 boys. That means only 18.7% of the test-takers were girls. Was it simply that fewer girls took AP exams in general? The answer was a resounding no. In fact, over 1.1 million girls took AP exams that year versus 927,000 boys. The figures showed that an overwhelmingly larger number of girls took art, humanities, and foreign language AP exams than boys, with the exception of only a few tests.

APCS had the greatest disparity in how many girls versus boys took an AP exam. Even in 2013, only 18.5% of APCS test takers were girls despite the fact that the overall number of girls taking APCS exams had risen, according to Georgia Tech’s Institute for Computing Education website.

As a bittersweet follow-up to this information, I read that Lego had just announced the addition of female science figurines in the form of a chemist, paleontologist, and astronomer. What? I had no idea Lego had confined girls to the beach, kitchen, and mall all these years. It seemed anachronistic in this day and age of political correctness and girl power. Even Barbie had careers as a computer engineer, presidential candidate, and army officer, despite her more popular (and pink) roles. But at least Lego was taking steps, and I was glad for that.

Some of us, like myself, may have assumed that we were further ahead in encouraging girls toward STEM fields than we actually are, or that change will naturally occur in time. Or perhaps some of us are acutely aware of the disproportionate amount of female talent in science and already actively working towards change. Either way, the reality is that we have a lot of power in our hands as educators to encourage girls to become engineers and programmers. Being that the majority of educators are women, we must first recognize this truth so that we do not unknowingly perpetuate the cycle based on our own subconscious biases that have been implanted in us throughout our own lives. Once we become aware, then we can make choices to empower girls to pursue the subjects and careers they are told not to by society, so that they can take part and have a voice in the jobs that are shaping today’s technologically-directed world.


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