Concerned about the growing disparity between the number of men and women who enter the information technology (IT) field, the Florida Department of Education and networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. have unveiled a new program aimed at recruiting female students into the IT ranks.

Called Girls Get IT, the initiative is intended to foster workforce awareness and proactive industry recruitment at the middle and high school levels by giving girls more of an opportunity to explore IT as a potential career choice. Program leaders say they hope to close the widening IT gender gap, illustrated by the fact that women currently make up only 35 percent of the IT workforce–and fewer still are pursuing technical degrees in college.

As technology continues to take a more central role in the classroom, educators are struggling to understand this growing disparity between male and female students. Although boys are more apt to pursue IT careers, girls tend to lose interest after high school, opting for jobs in the social sciences, where computers are used as tools–but people are the lifeblood of the profession.

“According to the American Association of University Women, based in Washington, D.C., women receive less than 28 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science,” said Gene Longo, senior manager of Cisco Networking Academy Field Operations. “This is a decrease from a high of 37 percent in 1984. Computer science is the only field in which women’s participation has actually decreased over time.”

It’s these kinds of statistics, explains Longo, that have prompted Cisco–and particularly its Networking Academy, an eight year-old initiative currently teaching career-level IT skills to students in more than 5,000 schools nationwide–to explore ways to better engage female learners.

“Across the board, we feel very strongly as a company that we need to do something to try and reduce this trend,” he said, noting that a primary focus of the program is “to ignite more excitement about potential careers in technology.”

It won’t be easy, he admits.

Sparking an interest in technology among boys often involves little more than placing a computer on a desk and inviting kids to have at it, but Longo says that sort of hands-on approach has proven less effective with girls.

For whatever reason, he said, girls tend to lose interest in technology after middle school. Though no scientific evidence currently exists for why such a drop-off occurs, Longo believes the problem isn’t necessarily that girls dislike technology; it’s simply that they would prefer to learn about it in the context of “broader social issues.”

As a participant in several regional summits designed to foster interest in IT among female learners, Longo said, it has become increasingly clear to him that girls are drawn to technology, especially when its application can be attributed to some kind of “real-world solution.”

Questions posed to female learners during a recent Cisco summit included: How can technology help save endangered elephants from poachers? What can technology do for the advancement of medicine? “Girls seem to really gravitate to the social issues,” Longo noted, whereas guys have always been drawn to the nuts and bolts of technology.

Longo and other proponents of the girls-can-do-it-too movement say today’s female students don’t really have the option of ignoring technology–not if they want to find success in the technology-driven 21st century.

“To succeed in today’s increasingly digital society, students must learn to use tools essential to everyday life and the workplace,” said David Armstrong, chancellor of the Florida Community College and Workforce Education System. “Demonstrating the importance of IT to young women is crucial to their professional development, because . . . information technology underpins nearly every other industry and its presence is not likely to be diminished in the future.”

As part of the program, Cisco Networking Academy executives plan to work with Florida educators to research, develop, and implement an educational framework to raise female student participation and graduation rates in IT.

Aside from holding special summits geared toward recruiting female learners, Longo said the Networking Academy also plans to roll out special curriculum resources tailored to girls’ unique interests. Among these is a new interactive game called Penny Packet, featuring a female counterpart to Cisco’s Peter Packet, the Alpha star of its original IT learning adventure.

Other resources include the creation of one-to-one mentoring programs and speaking engagements, where women from the professional world will be invited to serve as role models for girls considering high-tech careers.

Of course, getting girls to sign up for high-tech courses is one thing, said Longo; finding educators who can convince them to stay is another.

In terms of professional development, Cisco plans to create a course for Networking Academy instructors that will help them recruit and retain more female students. Plus, project directors also are looking for ways to promote increased parental involvement, providing tools that enable parents to help their children make better career decisions.

Through the Florida Community College and Workforce Education System, participating educators, administrators, and guidance counselors will have access to specially constructed teaching methods designed to increase awareness of career and education opportunities for women in technology, the company said.

Currently, four regional Networking Academy sites are targeted for initial participation in the program: Florida Community College of Jacksonville, North Florida Community College, Broward County Community College, and Valencia Community College, though Longo said the program is likely to expand as schools begin to see the effects.

Longo estimates the program will involve a three- to five-year commitment. During this time, participating Networking Academies across the state will build the infrastructure, create awareness, and begin to gauge the program’s overall influence through a battery of assessments, including measuring enrollment rates and conducting surveys to illustrate any change in student interest and enthusiasm attributed to the program.

Eventually, Longo and other IT industry leaders hope the program will expand nationally, giving female students from coast to coast an advantage when it comes to becoming productive members of tomorrow’s IT workforce.

“Students are still generally unfamiliar with the workplace and opportunities available to them,” said Rick Kearney, chairman of the Florida IT Board. “This is especially the case for young girls. There is a surprising absence of awareness of engineering and technology-type jobs, and what is involved with these careers on a day-to-day basis.”

Links:

Florida Department of Education
http://www.fldoe.org

Cisco Networking Academy Program http://www.cisco.com/en/US/learning/netacad/index.html