A Google engineer who got fired over a controversial memo that criticized the company’s diversity policies said that there might be biological reasons there are fewer women engineers. But top computer science schools have proven that a few cultural changes can increase the number of women in the field.
In 2006, only about 10 percent of computer science majors at Harvey Mudd College were women. That’s pretty low since Harvey Mudd is a school for students who are interested in science, math and technology. Then, Maria Klawe began her tenure as president of the college.
Klawe — a computer scientist herself — had always been told that girls weren’t good at these things. “This whole idea that women lean to liking doing one thing and men to doing another, it turns out I think if you do the curriculum and pedagogy well that’s just false,” she says.
In fact, as soon as she arrived Klawe joined in an effort to change the curriculum. First the school changed the name of the intro course, which had been called Intro to Java — a programming language.
Faculty came up with a new name: Creative Problem Solving in Science and Engineering Using Computational Approaches.
And then, Klawe says, the college also had to address the fact that a lot of women were intimidated by male students who showed off in class. Many had done some programming in high school and they would dominate discussion.
So, they created a second intro course for students who had no previous experience. Klawe says that it took away the “intimidation that comes of being a class where you’ve had no prior experience and somebody else has been programming since they were eight.”
Klawe says they also countered the stereotype that computer geeks were guys who spent all their time alone in a basement. “They had very deliberately made it collaborative and involving teamwork instead of being lonely,” she says.
Harvey Mudd’s intro computer class became among the school’s most popular. And now, instead of 10 percent in any given year, the number of women computer science majors ranges between 40 percent and 50 percent.
Harvey Mudd isn’t the only school seeing success in this effort. Carnegie Mellon has also significantly raised the number of women who major in computer science. Jane Margolis, an education researcher at UCLA began a four-year study of Carnegie Mellon in 1994. At the time, only 7 percent of computer science majors were women.
“It was not a question of capacity or ability” Margolis says. “It was a question of women feeling that they weren’t welcome or that their existence was suspect.”
For example, Margolis says there was a computer science club in which the men put the women down if they didn’t think about coding all day and night.
And yet, when Margolis interviewed the men, she found they had other interests too. “Many of them would say I like to do other things besides computing. I like to hike or I like to bike. But they never felt like their presence was being scrutinized.”
Carnegie Mellon instituted a series of reforms. The school created a women’s computer club. The school made it harder to become a computer science major — as always applicants had to be good at math and science but now they also had to show they had leadership qualities.
Today, instead of 7 percent, over 40 percent of the computer science majors at Carnegie Mellon are women.
For companies like Google — where only 20 percent of women are in technical positions — the question is whether there is something to be learned from these educational programs.