Career change or career progression? Motivations of women studying computing as adult learners

Donelan, Helen; Herman, Clem; Hughes, Janet; Jefferis, Helen and Thomas, Elaine (2019). Career change or career progression? Motivations of women studying computing as adult learners. International Journal of Gender Science and Technology, 11(3) pp. 466–489.



The proportion of female students qualifying in computing and IT degrees in the UK has decreased over the past five years and is one of the lowest in Europe. While most research on underrepresentation focuses on school age girls and young women entering higher education, there is little written about adult women learners and their motivation for entry into IT work. Adult learners are a compelling sample because they illustrate that studies of gender and careers can benefit from a life-course perspective. In addition, studying adult learners can add to intersectional understandings of underrepresentation by bringing in age/life-stage as a variable in the same way as considerations of ethnicity/race have enriched previous understandings.

This paper addresses this gap using a mixed methods study of adult learners pursuing computing degrees part-time through distance learning at one UK institution. The study included an online survey of 253 students, as well as focus groups with women students. While women were underrepresented across the two main degree programmes included in the study, the proportion of women was higher on qualifications where computing was studied along with other subjects rather than computing on its own. The survey showed other gender differences - a higher proportion of men were already working in the IT industry, whereas more women were looking to enter into an IT related role for the first time. The women were also more likely to be career changers - more women than men had a previous STEM-related degree. Nevertheless, some women expressed confidence issues, in particular about entering into careers in the industry rather than their ability to study IT. This suggests that employability in computing, even among women who have successfully completed STEM degrees in the past, or are already working, continues to be influenced by gendered structural barriers and behaviours.

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