Recent UCAS data from HESA 2017/2018 has revealed that women make up just 13% of students studying computer science, gaming and related courses in the UK.
When you compare that figure to other STEM related courses, the stark contrast becomes even more evident. Women studying biology total 61%, of students studying chemistry, 44% are women and in mathematics, 36% of students are female.
Computer science and gaming industries are some of the fastest growing in the UK, with the number of students enrolled on courses at British universities rising more than 60% over the last decade, according to UCAS data.
Figures from industry trade body UKIE show 50% of the UK population plays games, a figure that rises to 99% among 8-15-year olds. In April, UKIE released figures that showed the UK gaming market had hit a record £5.7bn, with a reported 2,261 active games companies based in the UK.
With huge names like Grand Theft Auto, Homefront: The Revolution and LittleBigPlanet all being produced in the UK, the market shows no sign of slowing down. This has led to a surge in young people looking to work in the field and now over 60 UK universities provide undergraduate and master’s degrees in games development.
So, why are so few women involved and how do we go about solving the gender gap in computer science and gaming?
Women in Computer Science and Gaming
When computer technology first emerged during World War II and continued into the 1960s, women made up the majority of the computing workforce, especially in the United States. From the 1950s to the 1980s, women were frequently employed to build software and in 1984 the number of women in America taking computer science at university reached a high of 37%. However, following the release of personal computers, which were said to be marketed almost exclusively to men, the number of women studying computer science related degrees dipped and sharply fell to just 18% between 1990 and 2010, according to NPR.
Today, women taking computer science related degrees in the UK make up just 13% of students.
And statistics from Creative Skillset in 2015 reveal that 19% of the computer science and gaming workforce are female.
If you trace the history of video games, women have also been in the industry from the very beginning. In the 1980s, Dona Bailey, the only woman in Atari’s arcade game division at the time, co-created and programmed Centipede: a highly successful fixed shooter with a female target audience.
In 2012, Robin Hunicke produced the amazing and mystical Journey, Amy Hennig directed the award-winning Uncharted 3 in 2011 and Siobhan Reddy is the studio director of Media Molecule, the parents of the innovative LittleBigPlanet.
Today, women also reflect around half of video game consumers, and many women are extremely passionate about the industry. When you look at some of the biggest game releases over the past few years, it’s clear that the industry has recognised this. In 2017, Playstation4 released the Horizon Zero Dawn as well as Gravity Rush 2, Nier Automata and Tacoma, which all showcased female protagonists.
However, if you look beyond the games and the customers and into the companies that make them, there is a very different picture. The gender gap in computer science and gaming is still very much a problem. In the industry, recent studies show that just 21% of the global gaming workforce is female.
With so many women actively engaged as customers, why are there so few looking to study and work in this field?
While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why there is such a huge gender gap in computer science and gaming, there are plenty of reasons that have been proven to contribute to this problem. From harmful stereotypes to lack of support for girls at school level and a lack of female role models, let’s have a delve deeper into this issue.
The Gender Gap in Computer Science and Gaming
Some industry insiders argue that the reason for the gender gap in computer science and gaming is due to a lack of female candidates coming through at the recruitment stage. Dr Richard Wilson CEO for TIGA sees education as a key issue, “The video games industry depends upon highly skilled, highly talented and highly qualified people to create games. Typically, 80% of the workforce is qualified to degree level or above, but the proportion of women studying subjects such as computer science or games programming courses is low. There is only a comparatively small pool of potential female employees available to work in the games industry.”
So why are there not more women in gaming? One reason is the vicious circle of underrepresentation that women are presented with when entering the tech world. The less young women that see themselves represented in the sector, the less likely they are to apply for jobs in that field.
This is a view that is echoed by Skillsoft’s chief marketing officer, Tara O’Sullivan: “To be something, you need to see something. These results are reflective of the lack of female role models in technology and STEM as a whole. The field is male dominated. Young girls often feel like they don’t have a place in STEM, so they don’t choose these A-level subjects.
“To make a change, we need women who have climbed up the STEM ladder to showcase themselves and their career choice,” O’Sullivan added. “They need to show young girls that working in STEM is cool and rewarding – and that women belong in the industry.”
This lack of confidence to study computer science and gaming begins prior to high school. Girls and young women have a preconception that those subjects are reserved for boys, often viewing the field as being dominated by “geeky males”.
Dr Fiebrink is a Senior Lecturer in Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London. But despite being interested in programming from an early age, she hadn’t even considered a career in the field until she spoke to a career’s counsellor.
“I grew up playing video games with my dad and learned how to programme for fun when I was in high school. And yet I didn’t see myself as a technologist. Just having someone give me permission to imagine myself in that role was life-changing.”
She believes misconceptions about the tech sector can put some people off and wants to emphasise the enormous range of careers available.
“Technology is not just for geeks. You’re engaged in creative thought all the time and the most successful computer scientists are those who like working in social, dynamic environments – and who understand and can communicate with others.
“People wrongly assume that to love computer science you just have to love technology and nothing else. But computer science can be applied to anything. It can be applied to helping your community or saving the planet. A computer science degree will give you the technical skills to accomplish something that’s important to you. It’s never boring.”
Research suggests that closing the gender gap in computer science and gaming could have huge financial benefits for the sector. A recent study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that increasing the number of women in IT could boost the UK economy by up to £2.6 billion.
Dr Fiebrink said, “Having more people with more ideas and more life experiences is important if we want to be making tech that’s useful to people and has a positive impact.”
What does the future hold?
It’s clear that the computer science and gaming industries are growing at an extremely fast rate.
Therefore, it has never been more important to solve the gender gap in computer science and gaming. It has been proven that increasing the inclusion of women in large tech companies is a successful and profitable business strategy. Research consistently shows that diverse workforces are more innovative; different backgrounds produce different ideas, approaches and solutions.
Computer science and gaming are both industries where innovation is sought after, therefore reaching out to more women will only help to boost a company to the next discoveries. It’s not about being seen to do the right thing, it’s about investing in the very future of technology.
There are plenty of women out there with aspirations of working in this exciting industry. Twitter has been overflowing with #GirlsBehindTheGames, a campaign highlighting the insight of hundreds of women who work in game development. Facebook has also recently launched the #SheTalksGames initiative, designed to empower and promote women in video games.
At STEM Women we specialise in nurturing this talent by organising a number of networking and careers events that are perfect for women who are interested in careers paths within computer science and gaming. We invite large companies from the tech world to meet over 1,500 female students at events in Edinburgh, Dublin, Manchester, Bristol, London and Birmingham. Visit our events page to find out more and follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date with all the latest news and event information.
Let’s work together to close the gender gap in computer science and gaming and support innovation and progression.