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Winter 2002 Issue # 1
Identifying Factors That Attract and Retain Teenage Girls in IT Career Preparation Programs:
Information Technology Career Cluster Initiative

Front Page

Sponsored by the United States Department of Education and the National School to Work Office, the IT Career Cluster Initiative is a partnership of Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC), the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), and the National Alliance of Business (NAB) to create a national model and career cluster curricular framework for IT careers that involve the design, development, support and management of hardware, software, multimedia and systems integration services.

Ten diverse pilot sites, representing a cross-section of secondary and post-secondary schools, were selected for the IT Career Cluster. One of the pilot sites, South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard, Washington - appears to have a higher percentage of girls enrolled in the cluster than do other schools in Washington or other pilot sites. Initial statistics indicate that 40 percent of South Kitsap IT cluster students are female, compared to an average of 25 percent at other ITCC pilot schools across the U.S. Average percentage of female students enrolled in the IT cluster at other schools in Washington is 15 percent.

A preliminary study was initiated to:

  • Determine what factors are encouraging and retaining girls in the South Kitsap IT cluster
  • Design an intervention to test these factors at other sites with similar demographic makeup
  • Analyze the results of the intervention
  • Disseminate the findings so that more girls have access to IT careers

EDC staff conducted focus groups with 67 junior high school students and 35 high school students in the South Kitsap School District. Each focus group lasted 20-30 minutes, had 8-14 participants, and consisted of both girls and boys.

For the majority of high school students, earlier exposure to computers at the junior high and - in a few cases - at the elementary school level got them interested in and excited about computers. At both the junior high and high school level, boys and girls overwhelmingly stated that they take IT courses because everyone needs to know about computers, whether or not they pursue an IT career. For a few students (boys and girls), interest in IT was sparked by a parent or older sibling. A few girls said that they were glad they were required to take the junior high IT course, as they thought IT was "geeky" and "mainly for boys" before they took the course, then learned it was fun and interesting.

Both boys and girls liked the hands-on, project-based, self-paced approach of their IT classes.

Girls and boys indicated an interest in a wide variety of careers. In ranked order, IT was the most popular career choice for girls, followed by doctor and teacher. However, a majority of girls plan to pursue a career in an area other than IT. IT was also the most popular career choice for boys. A majority of boys indicated that they plan to pursue an IT career.

The majority of girls and boys - approximately 80% - thought that stereotypes are the reason that the IT industry is dominated by men; "women and girls didn't used to think they could do this, but now they realize they can." A significant minority - approximately 20% - of boys and girls believe that males and females think differently and are interested in different things, so females are not as likely to be interested in computers. A few girls said that females might be afraid to go into a field dominated by men because they'll be treated differently.

Almost all students believe that the percentage of women in IT careers will continue to increase because girls are more encouraged now than in the past to learn about computers and explore computer careers, computer classes are offered (and required in one of the three junior high schools) at the junior high level, which shows girls that computers are "interesting and fun and not just 'geeky' and 'mainly for boys'," and girls are more encouraged now to pursue interesting and well-paying careers, and IT is one of those. Several girls noted that having female IT teachers encourages them to pursue IT because they see that women can do it.

Junior high and high school IT teachers believed that girls maintain engagement and interest in these courses when some or all of the following factors are present: connection of computers with an existing student interest, goal-oriented activities, collaborative activities, and female instructors.

These findings indicate that the hypothesized success factors are indeed impacting female students in positive ways. One factor that wasn't overtly hypothesized was clearly identified by girls as something that encouraged them to pursue IT classes; early exposure to computers breaks the "geeky" and "mainly for boys" stereotypes. For more information about the IT Career Cluster Initiative, please visit the Educator's Website for Information Technology (EWIT):


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