RIT Research to Examine Success and Failure Rate of Women in IT Programs

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Study is made possible by National Science Foundation grant

The proportion of female college students that exit information technology programs appears to be higher than the percentage of women that enter into them. Research at Rochester Institute of Technology—a leading provider of comprehensive computing education—will explore the factors influencing this troubling trend.

The National Science Foundation has awarded RIT a grant valued at nearly $325,000 for "Understanding Gender Attrition in Departments of Information Technology." The two-year study is under the direction of Elizabeth Lane Lawley, assistant professor of IT in RIT’s B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences.

The research will focus on undergraduate women in IT departments. Previous research into women’s experiences in computing programs usually centered on computer science departments, which traditionally feature a narrower curriculum than IT.

Several factors will be highlighted during the RIT study including those that influence female students to enter IT programs, those that influence some of them to leave after their first year of study, and how those factors compare to women in CS programs.

"The goal of the study would be not only to answer these questions," explains Lawley, "but also to develop recommendations for IT program recruiting, curricula and student support, based on those answers."

The study will be performed in two parts. First, Lawley will conduct a qualitative study of women entering RIT’s IT program this fall. The women will be interviewed at various points of the academic year to identify factors relating to their persistence or attrition.

"The current institutional climate at RIT is conducive to this research," states Lawley. "The university has made a major commitment to addressing retention problems, and institutional support for research on this topic is strong."

Part two of the study will focus on developing a questionnaire for faculty and students intended to identify the presence and influence of those factors in academic departments. The questionnaire will then be administered to women entering IT departments across the United States in order to determine whether the RIT findings are comparable at those at other institutions.

The study results will be broadly disseminated through a project Web site and publication of research results. The investigators will also formulate specific recommendations for IT programs intended to improve the retention of female students.

NOTE: RIT’s B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences is the largest comprehensive computing college in the nation—offering programs in computer science, information technology and software engineering. It is also home to the university’s Laboratory for Applied Computing, which partners with industry in the development of innovative applications of emerging information technologies. The college was created in 2001 with a $14 million gift, the largest from an individual in the university’s history, from B. Thomas Golisano, chairman and CEO of Paychex Inc.

RIT was the first university to offer undergraduate degrees in information technology and software engineering and, in 1972, became one of the first universities to offer an undergraduate degree in computer science.

Founded in 1829, RIT is internationally recognized as a leader in computing, engineering, imaging, technology, fine and applied arts, and education for the deaf. RIT enrolls more than 15,000 students in over 250 undergraduate and graduate programs.