Can role models increase young women’s interest in IT training occupations?

“VET ambassadors” as an example of career orientation based on social approval

Janina Beckmann, Alba Estela Esteve, Mona Granato

In view of the shortage of skilled workers and a pronounced underrepresentation of women in IT professions in Germany, this study asks whether vocational role models can attract more young people, especially more young women, to IT professions. This study uses the example of “VET ambassadors” in Germany – a novel career orientation approach based on social identification and social approval – to study the impact of vocational role models on students’ career preferences. Initial results from the BIBB-TUDa-Career Orientation Study suggest that role models may reduce gender differences in students’ occupational knowledge, self-efficacy and career preferences for IT professions.

Gender segregation in IT professions

The labour and apprenticeship market in Germany is characterised by a pronounced horizontal gender segregation. Women are particularly underrepresented in information technology (IT) professions. In the German dual VET system, among the newly concluded training contracts of IT specialists in 2021, only nine per cent of apprentices were female and there has hardly been any change in the past decade (cf. Flemming/Granath 2022). Since IT professions are associated with more favourable employment, income and promotion prospects, the underrepresentation of women is strongly related to vertical dimensions of gender inequality. Moreover, increasing the number of women could address the shortage of skilled workers, which is particularly high in IT professions (cf. Hickmann/Koneberg 2022). Increasing the attractiveness of IT occupations for women is therefore a key policy concern in the educational and economic system.

In recent years, vocational orientation approaches have increasingly focused on reducing gender inequalities in career choices, e.g. by providing practical work experiences in gender-atypical occupations. Such “gender-sensitive” career guidance approaches also stress the importance of vocational role models as a promising strategy to increase women’s interest in occupations traditionally seen as “male” (cf. e.g. Drescher/Häckl/Schmieder 2020; Neuenschwander et al. 2018). Role models may not only increase young people’s occupational knowledge. Acting as successful representatives of their profession and providing grounds for social identification, they may also break down existing gender stereotypes and increase young people’s confidence in their own abilities (cf. Athanasiadi/Schare/Ulrich 2020). Vocational role models thus address young people’s need for social approval, a fundamental need that guides young people’s career choice process (cf. Granato/Mutlu 2022; Oeynhausen/Mutlu 2022).

Why do young women avoid IT professions?

According to Gottfredson (1981), the perceived gender type of an occupation plays a central role in career choice. From a very early age, children and adolescents unconsciously exclude occupations from possible career options if they perceive the occupation is incongruent with their gender. For example, gender-atypical occupations are often associated with lower social approval from their social environment (cf. Eberhard/Matthes/Ulrich 2015). Furthermore, information technology professions are associated with pronounced male stereotypes, thus threatening women’s social identity (cf. e.g. Cheryan et al. 2013).

In addition, confidence in one’s occupation-specific abilities (i.e. self-efficacy) is an important predictor for career choice (cf. Bandura 1977). However, girls tend to underestimate their abilities in mathematical and technical fields more often than boys (cf. Correll 2001). This difference in the assessment of one’s own abilities is another important reason why women are underrepresented in IT professions.

Due to gender-stereotyped socialisation and gendered spheres of life, girls come into contact with male-dominated professions less often, and therefore feel less well-informed about male-dominated professions than boys (cf. Ferrari et al. 2015; Miller/Hayward 2006). Since occupational knowledge is an important prerequisite for career choices (cf. Rohlfing et al. 2012), gender differences in occupational knowledge represent another key explanation for gender differences in career choice that has been insufficiently researched so far.

The relevance of vocational role models

From a theoretical perspective, vocational role models fulfil two essential functions: First, they can increase young people’s motivation for specific careers (cf. Morgenroth/Ryan/Peters 2015). As examples of successful professionals, role models can strengthen confidence in young people’s abilities and opportunities (“If you can do it, so can I”). They act not only as examples of what is possible, but also as sources of inspiration. Social learning theory (cf. Bandura 1977) emphasises the importance of observational learning for the development of self-efficacy expectations. Second, vocational role models have an informative function, as they convey occupational knowledge and may rectify stereotypical or false ideas about occupations. By increasing occupational self-efficacy and knowledge, role models could ultimately increase young people’s career preferences for IT professions.

The majority of intervention studies on the effectiveness of STEM role models are based on text-based interventions such as written reports (for an overview see Gioannis/Pasin/Squazzoni 2023). Interventions using role models who are present in the classroom or in workshops have rarely been examined (exceptions cf. e.g. Breda et al. 2020; Drescher/Häckl/Schmieder 2020). Moreover, existing evidence is almost exclusively based on role models in the context of higher education. Empirical evidence on role models who represent training occupations in the VET system and – more specifically in IT training occupations – is largely absent (for an exception see Junghof-Preis et al. 2020).

Adding to this state of research, the article will answer the following research questions:

1) Do girls and boys perceive IT training occupations differently with regard to occupational knowledge, self-efficacy and career preferences?

2) Can role models reduce gender differences in the perception of IT training occupations (in the short-term)?

We use the BIBB-TUDa Career Orientation Study to examine these questions, a study conducted by the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) and the University of Darmstadt (TUDa).

“Vocational Education and Training (VET) ambassadors”

 “VET ambassadors” is a career guidance programme in Germany. Apprenticeship ambassadors visit classes at different types of general education schools from grade 9 upwards. Usually up to three apprentices present their training occupation (which includes both business administration or industrial and technical occupations) and answer students’ questions. The programme is mainly run by the Chambers of Commerce and Industry (IHK) and the Chambers of Crafts and Trades (HWK). In North-Rhine-Westphalia, the BIBB-TUDa Career Orientation Study is based on a cooperation with the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg IHK and the Cologne HWK.

Research design

The BIBB-TUDa Career Orientation Study is a quasi-experimental intervention study, examining the effectiveness of two career guidance programmes. In the first sub-study, a career guidance workshop is evaluated (“Logics of Career Choice”, cf. Oeynhausen/Mutlu 2022). The present article focuses on the second sub-study, which focuses on “VET ambassadors” as vocational role models (cf. info box).

In the present sub-study, around 2,000 students who attended “VET ambassadors” were repeatedly surveyed in the school years 2021/22 and 2022/23. The in-class surveys took place immediately before the visits of the role models (baseline survey), immediately after the visits (first follow-up), and again about four to eight weeks later (second follow-up). We use data from the baseline survey and the first follow-up survey of 243 respondents (52% of whom were female) who had attended visits given by apprentices working as IT-specialists. In the questionnaires, the students were asked about how they perceived this occupation and about their career preferences (cf. operationalisation). The sample includes students from four different general education school types, including Gymnasium, Realschule and Gesamtschule.

Operationalisation of constructs

Occupation-specific preferences are measured with three items: “I would like to do an internship in the profession of IT specialist”, “I would like to do an apprenticeship as an IT specialist” and “I would like to work as an IT specialist”. There is a high correlation between the different items (pairwise correlations of α=0.78, α=0.81 and α=0.89 with p=0.000).

Occupation-specific self-efficacy is measured with two items: “I believe that I have the abilities to learn the occupation of IT specialist” and “I would have good chances of getting an apprenticeship place as IT specialist” (correlation: α=0.77, p=0.000).

Occupation-specific perceived knowledge is measured with two items: “I know the occupation of IT specialist well”, “I can imagine what an IT specialist does”. (Correlation: α=0.58, p=0.000).

The items were measured on a five-point scale (1: “not at all true” to 5: “completely true”). Due to the high correlations of the items, they were combined for each construct into a summary index with a value range from 1 to 5.

Do boys and girls perceive IT professions differently?

Figure 1
Figure 1: Gender differences in the perception of IT specialists (baseline survey) Foto-Download (Bild, 347 KB)

Based on the baseline survey, a comparison of the means between boys and girls was carried out for each of the three constructs (see Figure 1). For both genders, the mean perceived knowledge, self-efficacy and career preferences are below the middle category of 3 on the five-point scale. For all three constructs, statistically significant gender differences emerge (with p=0.000). The biggest difference of almost one scale point is visible for career preferences. With an average of 2.4 scale points, boys show a significantly higher preference for this occupation than girls (1.6 scale points). Regarding self-efficacy and occupational knowledge, the gender difference reaches about half a scale point.

Can role models change the (gender-specific) perception of IT professions?

Figure 2
Figure 2: Before and after differences in the perception of the occupation of IT specialist by gender Foto-Download (Bild, 388 KB)

Figure 2 shows the average change in the perception of IT specialists before and after the visit of “VET ambassadors”, separately for boys and girls. Among the participants, a statistically significant increase in perceived knowledge, self-efficacy and career preferences for IT specialist is evident (with p=0.000). For both genders, the greatest increase can be seen in perceived occupational knowledge. For boys, the increase is around 0.66 scale points and for girls 0.96 scale points, i.e. almost a whole scale point. Occupation-specific self-efficacy increases to a comparable extent for both genders by 0.3 scale points each. Finally, the visit of the role models also significantly increases the students’ career preferences: Girls show an increase of around 0.37 scale points and boys around 0.28 scale points. Again, the increase is higher for girls than boys.

While self-efficacy increases to a similar extent for both genders, greater increases are visible for girls in terms of career preferences and occupational knowledge. Since girls show lower perceived knowledge and self-efficacy than boys in the baseline survey, these gender-specific changes contribute to the reduction of gender differences in these constructs over time. That is, the gender difference in occupational knowledge is reduced from 0.51 scale points in the baseline survey to only 0.21 scale points in the follow-up survey. The gender gap in career preferences shrinks from 0.82 (before) to 0.73 (after) scale points.

Implications for research and practice

The results of the BIBB/TUDa Career Orientation Study indicate, first, that adolescents hold gender-specific perceptions of IT professions and, second, that vocational role models may break down these gendered perceptions. Girls who attended visits of “VET ambassadors” in IT professions increased their occupational knowledge and career preferences to a larger extent than boys. Vocational role models, who communicate with young people at eye level, could hence provide a promising way not only to counter the shortage of skilled workers, but also to broaden young peoples’ perception of professions. Ultimately, a school-based career guidance programme based on role modelling could increase especially young women’s interest in male-dominated professions.

With these initial results from the first follow-up survey immediately following the VET ambassadors’ visits, we have shown the short-term effects of vocational role models. In the upcoming analyses, the data from the second follow-up survey (which took place 4 to 8 weeks after the visits of the “VET ambassadors”) will be used to examine how vocational role models change young people’s career preferences in the long run. At the same time, the comparison group of students who did not attend the visits of the “VET ambassadors” will be used to strengthen the (causal) significance of the effectiveness of role models. Another avenue for future research concerns the gender match between student and role model. Female role models may be particularly effective in increasing girls’ interest in IT professions by providing higher grounds for social identification and breaking existing masculine stereotypes.

Finally, the results should be interpreted against the background of the relatively high prestige of IT specialists (cf. Ebner/Rohrbach-Schmidt 2019). Based on the data collected within the BIBB-TUDa Career Orientation study, we will therefore examine to what extent role models from less prestigious training occupations can overcome existing negative ascriptions and stereotypes of low-status occupations. In addition to the perceived gender fit, the presumed social prestige of an occupation plays a central role in career choice (cf. Gottfredson 1981). Adolescents often unconsciously exclude professions based on their socialisation and negative expectations of their social environment even if these occupations would fit their vocational interests (cf. Matthes 2019; Beckmann 2021). Whether role models can also increase the social prestige of training occupations and thus contribute to increasing the attractiveness of dual VET is therefore another central research question of the BIBB-TUDa Career Orientation Study.

Role models could thus contribute to broadening the occupational options young people take into consideration for themselves. In doing so, “VET ambassadors” implicitly stimulate social identification processes and thus address young people’s need for social approval. Another career orientation programme based on social recognition is the workshop “Logics of Career Choice”. During this one-day workshop, young people explicitly reflect upon their needs for social approval and social influences in their career choice process (cf. Oeynhausen/Mutlu 2022; Granato/Mutlu 2022). The BIBB-TUDa Career Orientation Study examines the effectiveness of both types of career orientation programmes, both addressing young people’s need for social approval, and thus contributes to the strengthening of an evidence-based vocational guidance practice.


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Janina Beckmann
Researcher at BIBB

Alba Estela Esteve
Master’s student at HHU Düsseldorf
Research assistant at BIBB until 12/2022

Mona Granato
Dr., Senior Researcher at BIBB


Translation from the German original, published in BWP 2/2023