How One College Is Closing The Computer Science Gender Gap

Tim Goral's picture
Wednesday, May 1, 2013

There are still relatively few women in tech. Maria Klawe wants to change that. As president of Harvey Mudd College, a science and engineering school in Southern California, she's had stunning success getting more women involved in computing.

Klawe isn't concerned about filling quotas or being nice to women. Rather, she's deeply troubled that half the population is grossly underrepresented in this all-important field. Women aren't setting the agenda and designing products and services that are shaping our lives. They're getting only about 18 percent of the bachelor's degrees in computer science, and in the workplace their numbers aren't much higher.

Seated in her modest office on the Claremont, Calif., campus, Klawe, 61, reflects on the stereotype of computer scientists as anti-social nerds, saying it's out of date. But she is quick to add that women often face barriers spoken and unspoken that discourage them from entering the field.

She recalls her own experience growing up in Canada, where she was a top university math student.

"Professors would say to me all the time, 'Why do you want to be a mathematician, Maria? There are no good women mathematicians.' And it just really bugged me," Klawe says.

And that helps explain a career choice she would make decades later. Back in 2005, Klawe was thriving as dean of the engineering school at Princeton. But when Harvey Mudd College approached her about becoming the school's president, she was intrigued. She saw an opportunity to change science and engineering education.

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