A new festival hopes to encourage more young women and girls to pursue education and careers in computing science. The Ada Scotland Festival, set to be held online on 13th October, will align with Ada Lovelace Day and run through the following week.
Event organisers said the new festival will be a “one-stop-shop” for girls and young women to get inspired about tech subjects and raise awareness of gender diversity in various STEM fields. The festival will bring together partners from academia, government and industry to showcase the opportunities computing science can offer.
Dr Matthew Barr from the University of Glasgow leads the initiative alongside co-founders Dr Ella Taylor-Smith (Edinburgh Napier University) and Toni Scullion (dressCode). The inspiration for the Ada Scotland Festival grew from a SICSA workshop which explored growing concerns over the gender imbalance in computing.
Gender diversity in STEM subjects is a hotly-debated topic for both Scotland’s education system and the country’s burgeoning technology sector. Academics and industry practitioners have repeatedly raised concerns that, if nothing is done to address the issue, the country’s tech sector is missing out on a huge volume of potential talent.
From National 5 level through to Advanced Higher, the overall number of computing science pupils continues to decline across Scotland. Additionally, last year’s SQA figures also highlighted that computing science has one of the largest gender gaps in all subjects.
“This is a really concerning trend, although it is not one that is unique to Scotland, it is a global issue,” Toni Scullion told DIGIT.
Speaking to DIGIT, Barr said the main inspiration for the Ada Scotland Festival is to improve engagement from a young age and to change the perception of computing subjects.
“The gender imbalance in computing science is pretty shocking. Across the UK, women make up something like 15% of students studying the subject at university while around 20% of the computing-related workforce is female,” he said.
“We need to make sure that girls’ opportunities to study computing are not limited from an early age, and that means talking to parents and supporting teachers to try and overcome this perception that computing is for boys,” Barr added.
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Ensuring higher levels of engagement in computing subjects among girls will, ultimately, benefit the country’s tech sector, Barr insisted.
“The tech industry needs more diversity,” he said. “I know from working with employers that they desperately want to attract more female talent when recruiting for tech roles, but by the time young women enter the job market, that path has often been closed off to them already.”
The Ada Scotland Festival could play a key role in initiating an open dialogue on the subject of gender diversity in tech, Barr said. This is an issue that cannot be addressed on a sector-to-sector basis and instead will require collaboration across a broad range of areas – spanning government and academia as well as both the public and private sectors.
“We’re not going to solve this overnight, but, by working together at all levels – from primary school through to university and beyond – we can hopefully start to make a difference,” he said.
Scullion echoed Barr’s comments on early engagement with students. The festival will feature university-level computing science students who will be at hand to offer advice and inspiration to younger aspiring students.
“We know that inspiring girls from a young age and getting them excited about Computing Science is a key factor that results in more girls being engaged in the subject when they go to secondary school,” she said.
“We also know having role models can also be an influencing factor, so by involving Computing Science students at University we hope will help inspire the girls at school,” Scullion added.
One of the key recommendations in Mark Logan’s Technology Ecosystem Review, published last month, was that computing science in schools should be viewed as equally important to maths or physics.
“We propose a transformation of Computing Science education at school level, with the principle that the subject must be treated, from 1st year at secondary school level with the same focus as mathematics or physics,” the report stated.
The report also argued that pupils across Scotland should be taught computing science as a core subject from their first year in secondary.
“We also recommend considerable expansion of extra-curricular support. At university level, we propose specific interventions intended to better equip technical students with international class start-up skills and to improve the success rate and volume of university spin-outs,” the report added.