Two-year-olds should learn to code, says computing pioneer

Early start would encourage women to become programmers and reduce gender stereotyping, argues Stephanie Shirley

Children as young as two should be introduced to the basics of coding, according to one of Britain’s most eminent computing pioneers.

Dame Stephanie Shirley, whose company was one of the first to sell software in the 1960s, said that engaging very young children – in particular girls – could ignite a passion for puzzles and problem-solving long before the “male geek” stereotype took hold.

“I don’t think you can start too early,” she said, adding that evidence suggested that the best time to introduce children to simple coding activities was between the ages of two and seven years. “Most successful later coders start between five and six,” she added. “In a sense, those years are the best for learning anything … and means that programming [hasn’t] become set in your mind as geeky or nerdy.”

Shirley’s comments came as A-level results last week revealed a striking gender divide in computing, with only 9.8% of those taking the subject at A-level being girls.

Shirley also called on tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, to introduce anonymous recruitment to help address the lack of female programmers. Only 20% of Google engineers are female (the statistic is roughly matched across the industry) and one recent report showed male founders are nearly twice as likely to attract venture capital funding.

“Once you have an imbalance, the leaders of today define the leaders of tomorrow,” said Shirley. “It’s instinctive to recruit in your own image. I think some of this will continue until we actually learn to anonymise some of our relationships and computers help in that.”

Programmers, she argued, should be assessed on skill, just as secretaries were once given typing tests. “You don’t send a photo, you don’t give a name, you just look at the achievements of the person as a selection process,” she said.

She describes the recent internal memo by a former Google engineer as “so patronising” and “utterly unacceptable” and added that a failure to tackle the gender gap had led to “very macho” cultures in some tech companies, from which women felt excluded.

Shirley contrasts this with the ethos at her first company, Freelance Programmers, which in the 1960s was among the first to sell technical software packages. Out of the first 300 staff, she employed just three male programmers and the gender ratio only shifted significantly when the Sex Discrimination Act passed in 1975.

“You’d think I’d be as happy as anything because I’m a bit of a feminist, but that really meant that my woman’s company had to let the men in,” she said.

Shirley has previously spoken out about the sexism she faced in her early days working in computing and she later adopted the nickname Steve professionally because she found it easier to win contracts when people thought they were dealing with a man. “Companies run by women still have extraordinary difficulty in getting venture capital,” she said.

She also worries that lack of diversity in tech is leading to products that have bias programmed into them.

“An example of the industry’s masculinity is in my Apple watch,” she said. “This has lots of useful things such as heart rate but doesn’t help in managing the menstrual cycle.”

Since retiring, Shirley has devoted much of her time and fortune to philanthropic causes linked to autism – her late son Giles was severely autistic.

She argues that technology such as robots and artificial intelligence holds huge potential for helping children with autism function in the world and connect more readily with those around them. This view runs counter to the fears of some that the increasing use of robots could leave some sectors of society, the elderly, for example, cut off from human contact.

Such technology is already being tested at Priors Court in Berkshire, a residential school for autistic children that Shirley founded.

“We use a little robot for very simple things,” she said. “To teach eye contact. To move quietly around and not to dash around in all directions. The reactions of pupils to the robot are extraordinary, partly because it’s not threatening,” she added. “The robot is patient and can repeat without getting, ‘Oh God, is this child never going to get it.’”

Dame Stephanie Shirley is a guest on this week’s episode of Science Weekly

Contributor

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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