‘Girls Can’t Program in Their Heads’: Gender and Games in the Computing Classroom

Judy Robertson

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When I was an undergraduate computer science student one of my fellow students enraged me by telling me condescendingly that "girls just can’t program C in their heads". (This is true, of course. People of both genders usually deploy a text editor and compiler rather than computing in their heads). Twenty years later, the underlying problem of gender in computer science persists. We can’t recruit female computer science students, and the industry is desperately short of women (e-skills UK, 2011). Contrary to my student colleague’s perception, this is not because of women’s lack of ability (Singh et al., 2007). Often it’s lack of confidence in technical abilities, coupled with the paradoxical tendency for women to believe that while women in general have equal ability and opportunity to pursue computing careers, they personally don’t happen to be good at it (Beyer, Rynes, Perrault, Hay & Haller, 2003). What can we do to solve this problem? How can we encourage our best and brightest students, whether male or female, to consider careers in computing? This is a question which I have been considering over several years with particular reference to computer game making in the classroom. I don’t have a simple answer, but I do have some empirical observations to add to the debate.

Computer access at home is more equal now

In the olden days, girls’ lack of interest in computing at school could in part be attributed to lack of access to hardware (Margolis and Fisher 2002). Girls got elbowed out of the way by their brothers and the boys in their class so they didn’t get to explore and fall in love with the BBC micro or the Apple II.  I suspect this is changing, as laptop prices drop, smart phone ownership increases, and social networking becomes more prevalent. 

In a recent study of 744 secondary school pupils in Scotland , aged between 11 and 14, we found that there was no significant difference in the number of hours boys and girls spent using the computer at home per day (on average between one and two hours).  In terms of activities while using the computer, girls were significantly more likely to do homework and talk with friends while boys were significantly more likely to play games. There was no significant difference in the amount of time spent learning more about a topic of interest.


Boys and girls start off high school liking computers and believe they are good at computing

Previous studies have found that there is early socialisation of girls away from technology: "Both boys and girls need to be taught that computers are for them" (Varma, 2010; p 314). Our findings suggest that girls do in fact have positive attitudes to computers, although not quite as positive as boys. In our recent study, there was a significant difference between boys’ and girls’ responses to the statement "I like computing". Essentially girls were more inclined to agree with the statement on a 5 point Likert scale, whereas boys were more likely to strongly agree.

Although previous authors have reported low self confidence in computing skills among female students (Beyer et al., 2003), this was not the case here: only 7% of the girls disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement "I am good at computing".


Kids don’t know what computer science is

These figures seem pretty positive. Both boys and girls start off high school liking the technology, and believing that they are good at the subject. When I dug deeper, though, I discovered that these children actually didn’t know much about what the subject involves. This point has been well made in a recent review by the Royal Society (Furber, 2012): there is a good deal of confusion in the school system about whether children are learning ICT, computing or computer science.  This is nicely illustrated in the following excerpt from an interview with two 13 year old girls who were asked if they would use computers in their careers.

"Girl 1: To be an optician or a vet, you have to use the computer quite a lot for that.

Girl 2: programming and stuff

Girl 1 : To be an optician you have to program what it is, know what it is, certain parts. Like what’s wrong , how they can help and stuff.

Interviewer: Have you done any programming yet in school?

Girl 1: I don’t know

Girl 2: We did, We did our own program. "My computer of the future" that was a programming one.

Girl 1: We know that programming is like typing and stuff."

As a computer science lecturer, I put my head down on my desk and wept when I listened to that recording! Something has gone quite badly wrong if learners are unsure if they have learned how to program, and confuse it with typing. The rest of our interview data paints a picture of learners being taught very basic IT skills such as saving files, and using basic applications such as spreadsheets. There was also evidence of good practice in using software to support creative expression, such as making music, videos or animations. There was a general lack of familiarity with the concept of programming, and certainly no mention of theoretical computer science.

My guess is that we are going wrong in the early years of secondary school. Starting from a base of confident, keen IT users coming in from primary schools, there is potential to turn at least some of them into confident, curious, creative and rigorous computer scientists by exploring what lies inside their phones and laptops. In my view, we’re not exploiting this potential at the moment because the curriculum is muddled, dull, out of date and inadequately challenging.

Making games in the class isn’t necessarily the panacea we hoped

A lot of hope for improving computer science education has been placed on using environments for making games. This seems a reasonable notion: games are part of children’s everyday lives (97% of young people in the US play computer games Lenhart and Kahne (2008)). If children are motivated to spend a good deal of leisure time playing games, perhaps we can interest them in programming and other CS concepts by introducing game making activities to classrooms. Carefully designed software environments which enable game making such as Scratch and Alice have become popular globally, and are increasingly used in Scottish schools. However, there is still a lack of empirical evidence from studies in schools on their impact on motivation or learning. In our study, nineteen schools used our Adventure Author software to teach ~900 learners how to use their own computer games over a period of 9 weeks on average. We studied the impact the project had on learners’ attitudes to computing, and were disappointed to discover that game making may make pupils less inclined to study computing in the future. Furthermore, girls enjoyed the project significantly less than boys. In an interesting twist, it turns out that girls are actually better at making this sort of games than boys are (Robertson 2011), even although girls are generally less experienced gamers. We need more studies of this sort to discover the longer term effects of games programming projects using various tools.


Encouraging more bright learners of both genders to study computer science is a complex educational problem, and we have to tackle it with a range of approaches ( some of which are outlined in the Royal Society report (Furber, 2012)). I believe that we should be realistic in our expectations about the impact from new hardware or software initiatives such as game authoring environments or the much sought after Raspberry Pi. I suspect that improving teacher training in concert with reforming the curriculum will be more effective. But in the end it doesn’t matter what I think, or what any other expert thinks. We need good research evidence on the impact of the interventions we make. And that requires adequate funding.


[A version of this article will appear in the EPSRC/ESRC TEL report from a workshop event on computing in schools]



Beyer, S., Rynes, K., Perrault, J., Hay, K., & Haller, S. (2003). Gender differences in computer science students. Proceedings of the 34th SIGCSE technical symposium on Computer science education – SIGCSE  ’03, 49. New York, New York, USA: ACM Press. doi:10.1145/611892.611930

e-skills UK. (2011). Summary Technology Insights 2011.. London.Retrieved 19/6/12 from

Furber, S. (2012). Shut down or restart?? The way forward for computing in UK schools. Technology. London. Retrieved from

Lenhart and Kahne, 2008. Teens, video games, and civics (2008) Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved 23/12/11 from

Margolis, J., & Fisher, A. (2002). Unlocking the clubhouse: Women in computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Robertson, J. (2012). Making games in the classroom: Benefits and gender concerns. Computers & Education, 59(2), 385-398. Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.12.020

Singh, K., Allen, K. R., Scheckler, R., & Darlington, L. (2007). Women in Computer-Related Majors: A Critical Synthesis of Research and Theory From 1994 to 2005. Review of Educational Research, 77(4), 500-533. doi:10.3102/0034654307309919

Varma, R. (2010). Why so few women enroll in computing? Gender and ethnic differences in students’ perception. Computer Science Education, 20(4), 301-316. doi:10.1080/08993408.2010.527697

 [JR1]Rose, this work is under review, do you want me to cite the article or not?

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