Cultural stereotyping of computer users as “male, socially awkward and intense” has led to a low number of girls in NI studying computing.
That is according to a report from the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).
Computing is seen as “a male-oriented domain consisting of anti-social ‘nerds, geeks or hackers’,” it said.
The study looked at why comparatively few girls choose to study computer-related subjects at school.
For instance, only 50 girls took computing at A-level in 2018 compared to 314 boys.
Only 38 girls took the software systems development A-level compared to 204 boys.
There were also significantly many more boys taking other ICT qualifications at GCSE and A-level.
The CCEA research said stereotyping was one of the main barriers to more girls participating in computing.
Stereotypes it cited included viewing girls as less talented at maths and technology subjects, and being less equipped for complex work.
This perception of computing as a male domain created a “substantial and long-lasting barrier” to girls studying it, the report said.
“This could explain female students’ refusal to take up supposedly ‘male’ subjects such as computing, as this would prevent others attributing them as ‘geeks’,” added the report.
“It is the stereotyping of computer users as male, socially awkward and intense that dissuades females from feeling a sense of belonging in the computing environment.”
Some girls are also put off by “computer anxiety” as studying computing is presented to them as outside of their comfort zone, even if they are regular users of social media.
The report also said that as comparatively few girls choose computing, the pressure for them to excel was much greater.
As a result, women are missing out on job opportunities in a fast-growing sector.
The CCEA report cites research suggesting the UK’s digital technology industry has grown 32% faster than the rest of the UK economy in recent years.
However, only 17% of employees in the UK technology sector are women.
The computing gender gap is echoed among wider science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.
The CCEA research suggests a number of ways more girls can be encouraged to study computing.
These include the promotion of “relatable, realistic” female role models and more partnerships between schools and NI-based technology companies.
It also said that teachers should take steps to challenge stereotypes in the classroom and called for changes to the computing curriculum to make it more attractive to girls.