The 16-year-old's blunt question came after the pizza lunch Thursday at an all-girls high-school field trip to take a tour and meet women...

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The 16-year-old’s blunt question came after the pizza lunch Thursday at an all-girls high-school field trip to take a tour and meet women working at Microsoft in Redmond.

More than a dozen female professionals from throughout the company sat on folding chairs up front, passionately coaching the dozens of girls, some of whom were teen mothers, on how to go for it in the male-dominated field of high-tech.

“Don’t take no for an answer.” “Follow your passion.” “Keep an open mind.”

Then, from the audience, the 16-year-old raised her hand.

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“I got kicked out of school,” said the girl, who is now enrolled elsewhere. “Is there a lower percentage of girls like me in the Microsoft positions that you’re in?”

In other words, could a girl who has been expelled dare to dream of being like these women?

Such a question used to never even get asked.

But this field trip was part of a Seattle Public Schools program called “IGNITE” — an acronym for Inspiring Girls Now In Technology Evolution” — that has spread to several school districts in Washington and a few other states.

For nearly a decade, this federally funded initiative has aimed to convince thousands of high-school girls — regardless of their circumstances — that they can be successful in the high-wage fields of technology and engineering.

“The problem starts when they are young” because girls aren’t picking the right classes that would lead to such careers, said Cathi Rodgveller, who lives in Brier and founded the program.

“There are so many opportunities for our young women, and it’s just not right that they don’t know about it.”

This year, IGNITE won a top national award for its success in preparing students for nontraditional careers. Rodgveller, who is a Seattle Public Schools counselor, and a few leading volunteers — including women from the University of Washington and companies such as Microsoft, Boeing and Cisco Systems — were honored in Washington, D.C.

At stake may be no less than women’s future, as more and more jobs involve high technology. Yet women hold a minority of science, technology and engineering jobs.

IGNITE introduces girls to career possibilities in those fields through mentoring, field trips, job shadowing and internships. Next year, the program will start reaching out to poor and minority young men as well.

Rodgveller also has created a startup tool kit and book so any school district can run IGNITE. The goal is to spread the program worldwide.

In January, Microsoft is sponsoring a conference in partnership with IGNITE for educators statewide to learn more about the program.

“Every time we do this, you can tell it makes a difference. That’s what makes it so energizing,” said Raelene Sanders, senior network engineer at Microsoft and a board member of IGNITE.

“We want to make sure every school district in Washington has an IGNITE program.”

On the Microsoft field trip that day, the women professionals talked a blue streak about bouncing back from mistakes and disappointments and proving naysayers wrong.

They also did not let the 16-year-old’s “could-a-girl-like-me” question hang in the air for long.

An operations program manager, Jennifer Harden, grabbed the microphone. Harden already had said that she barely graduated from high school and had no college degree. Yet here she was, a woman of color, with an important job at Microsoft.

“Yeah, you’ve been expelled, but that’s not who you are,” Harden said.

This girl could decide to learn from this setback and go on to get an education. And if she got herself prepared, Harden promised, “There will be people like me in corporate America who will make room for people like us.”

Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or mking@seattletimes.com