UC reduces the gender gap in IT

Progress made in efforts to reach younger students, make field more welcoming

Corin Manning was only 14 years old when she discovered what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

She and a friend signed up for a summer camp, IndeedWeCode, which teaches coding or computer programming to young Black girls in Cleveland, Ohio. Manning, now a senior at the University of Cincinnati, fell in love with coding and web development that summer and now is on the verge of starting her career in Cleveland with the industrial automation company Rockwell Automation.

Manning's experience is similar to initiatives from UC's School of Information Technology, such as its Early IT Program and Early IT Summer Camp, as it focuses on reducing the gender gap in information technology.

“It's super important to make sure you get to people early,” Manning said. “I can take it all the way back to elementary school. My mom had me in a bunch of different STEM camps since I was young. It was already kind of embedded in me. I knew I wanted to do STEM, I just didn't know what path, and the IndeedWeCode camp solidified it.”

A woman explains her team's project while another woman looks at her.

Emma Rader, left, explains the building management system her team created while Taylor O'Black, right, looks on at the 2023 IT Expo. The 2024 IT Expo will be from 8:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 9 in the Campus Rec Center. Photo/Greg Humbert

UC makes strides

When Bekah Michael, an associate professor-educator in the School of Information Technology, part of the university’s College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services, and the executive staff director for the Ohio Cyber Range Institute, began her studies in IT, she was often the only woman in her classes.

She loved her classmates and never felt discriminated against by her classmates because of her gender, but it was obvious that she was different.

“I noticed that there weren’t very many women,” she said. “It took me a while but [I] realized the field was not diverse at all, which was so crazy because it felt so accepting to me.

“This is such an exceptional field,” she said. “You can make so much money, there was so much flexibility, and women just weren’t getting in. There are many reasons why this was the case, and we continue to study it and work to remove barriers and build a more inclusive community. This is why I came back to UC to study and teach after being in industry for many years.”

Narrowing gender gap

Women studying IT still find themselves underrepresented in their classes, but the gap is narrowing at UC.

  • In fall 2023, there were 679 women in UC’s School of Information Technology (28% of the total student body).
  • In fall 2023, 41% of the school’s graduate students were women (512).
  • The number of first-time first-year women enrolled in the SoIT grew by 161% from fall 2019 to fall 2023.
  • Enrollment of women in the cybersecurity Bachelor of Science Degree program grew by 31% from fall 2022 to fall 2023.
  • The number of women on the school’s IT faculty increased by 60% from fall 2019 to fall 2023.

“It’s an amazing thing for our students that women are represented in our department,” Michael said. “Other underrepresented groups are represented in our department and school. That’s a part of what we need to support our students. Our students need to see all of us at the front of the classroom so they don’t feel alone.

“I talk to people at national conferences all the time about our makeup, and they are just blown away. That is not their experience.”

University of Cincinnati president Dr. Neville G. Pinto spoken and enjoyed the Distinguished Visitors Day for the OCRI and OhCR Pilot Cybersecurity Exercise on Friday July 15, 2022. Photos by Joseph Fuqua II

Bekah Michael, executive staff director of the Ohio Cyber Range Institute, explains how members of the Ohio Cyber Reserve are being trained at the University of Cincinnati's 1819 Innovation Hub. Photo/Joseph Fuqua

Building a positive culture

As Jen Fritz, an associate professor-educator in the school sees it, there's nothing about IT that prevents women from entering the field other than the perception that it's a male-dominated industry.

“There’s nothing in this field that a woman can’t do,” Fritz said. “In IT, it’s just as easy for women to be competent in the field as men.

“It’s not the field that’s keeping women out. It’s how comfortable they are in the environment.”

When Fritz began her studies in information systems in the 1990s after retiring from the Marine Corps, it wasn't uncommon to see nude women appear on screensavers in computer labs. While that was accepted then, the technology sector has become more welcoming to women in the years since, Fritz said.

Still, there's progress to be made.

Breanna King, a senior from Cincinnati, encountered people who questioned her knowledge and didn't give her credit for her ideas during a work experience. That led her to believe the hostility she faced was a result of her gender.

“The negative experiences that I've had with it have caused me to stray from the ability to have those experiences, to not really share my opinion as much and caused me to second-guess myself a lot,” King said. “It doesn't happen every day. It doesn't happen more often than not. It's just when they do occur, it kind of sticks with you a little bit more than the positive ones sadly.”

While that negative environment sullied her experience, King did find a better culture during a co-op with the Department of Justice (DOJ).

With the DOJ, King felt supported as both a woman and a person with disabilities who uses a wheelchair, cane or leg braces for her mobility issues. She also found a culture of people who wanted to learn and find solutions to the problems they faced.

“It's nice being able to get that experience on the ground,” said King, who has accepted a data analyst job with the DOJ. “I don't think I would have been able to understand that aspect of it outside of a co-op.”

A student and the UC mascot look at a computer screen.

Wenhan Jia shows the Bearcat a video game her team created at the 2023 IT Expo. The 2024 IT Expo will be from 8:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 9 in the Campus Rec Center. Photo/Greg Humbert

Overcoming negative perceptions

To overcome the perceptions of IT that sometimes make women feel unwelcome, faculty and students at UC have created support systems.

Organizations including Women in CyberSecurity cater to female students. The clubs provide a safe place for students to share their successes and failures, practice technical and nontechnical skills and build their professional networks.

Other programs and organizations including Cyber@UC, Bearcat Coders and IT Proud also provide spaces where students can support each other, and they receive support from faculty, too.

“They're very supportive. You can go to them at any time, even if you're not their student that semester. It feels nice to have them there,” said Manning, who works as a student success coach for the IT program to show fellow students the same support she's received at UC.

Not only do they want to help their fellow students at UC, the organizations also have reached out to younger students as well.

“I've been able to talk to girls who are in high school and even girls who are in middle school who are interested in this field already. When we went to the library, there were two girls there who were in Girl Scouts together. One of my opening questions was, ‘Has anyone heard of steganography?’” King said, referencing the practice of concealing a file, message, image or video within another file, message, image or video. “And two little girls raised their hands, they were no older than maybe fifth or sixth grade, and they were able to tell me all about it. I think the resources have helped that gap a lot.”

A woman stands behind a computer screen that another woman is looking at.

Aanshi Patel meets with a guest at the 2023 IT Expo. The 2024 IT Expo will be from 8:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 9 in the Campus Rec Center. Photo/Greg Humbert

Highlighting the opportunities

To reduce the gender gap in technology fields, it's important to show women and girls that opportunities exist, professor Fritz said.

“We can’t just go out and say, ‘IT is for anyone. Let’s see how many women or how many minorities we can get into the field,’” she said. “That doesn’t solve our problem. That doesn’t make it more equitably distributed. What we need is word of mouth and personal experience: ‘My sister did this, now I’m doing it.’ And we’ve seen that.”

To increase that personal experience, UC has created programs such as the Early IT Program and Early IT Summer Camp.

The Early IT Summer Camp is a free program that allows high school students to explore numerous career opportunities available through information technology including in cybersecurity, software development, game development and simulation and data and cloud technologies.

The Early IT Program allows high school students to complete the first year of their bachelor’s degrees at more than 50 high schools. With training from UC, high school teachers are enabled to teach the college courses at their schools.

A woman stands on stairs while holding an award.

Corin Manning won the Student Trailblazer Award at the 2024 Onyx & Ruby Gala Feb. 17. Photo/provided

All students who complete their first year of Early IT classes in high school with a C or above average are automatically admitted to the UC information technology program.

“At UC, IT is becoming a lot more accessible because we have things like Early IT,” Nikki Holden, an instructor-educator in the school, said. “We’re getting more people in IT who wouldn’t have gravitated toward IT 10, 15 years ago.”

Students, including King and Manning, also have taken advantage of the IT Accelerated Program that allows students to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees simultaneously in five years. Manning is earning a bachelor’s degree in IT and a Master of Business Administration Degree while King is earning a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity and master’s degree in IT.

Through the efforts to reach younger students, UC faculty hope their efforts will make more underrepresented students feel comfortable in IT and that students from all backgrounds will become interested in the field.

“Students need to have someone who looks like them teaching. Regardless of what the class is or the level, they need to have someone they associate with, so having women teaching makes women feel more comfortable in the classroom,” Fritz said. “But when I teach, I don’t look at a person as male or female, minority or anything else. I look at them as students. I try to treat them all equally.”

Featured image at top: University of Cincinnati information technology students hold up sweatshirts. Photo/Margot Harknett

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