How to Attract Women (to Computer Science)

by Janet Pinkerton | Apr 26, 2012
Maria Klawe
Maria Klawe

Research indicates that young women are underrepresented in disciplines like computer science because they frequently don't know much about it, don't think it’s interesting, don't think they could ever be successful at it, or can't envision themselves involved with it. So if colleges, vocational-technical programs and high schools want to attract more young women to computer science, they have to proactively change that mindset, advises Maria Klawe, computer scientist, mathematician and president of Harvey Mudd College, a STEM-centric liberal arts college in Claremont, Calif.

Since arriving at Harvey Mudd in 2006, Klawe successfully worked to increase the number of young women enrolled and participating in its math, science, computer science and engineering programs. The percentage of female Harvey Mudd computer science majors, 10 percent in 2005, now stands at about 40 percent, the highest ratio in the country (other than at all-women's colleges).

Below are Klawe's suggestions for increasing the number of women in computer science programs:

Scrutinize Marketing & Admissions Materials

Make sure the images in all materials depict happy, hardworking female students as well as happy, hardworking male students, and that all text is balanced in its gender references, tone and focus.

In addition, don't underestimate the power of the personal gesture when recruiting young women. When the enrollment "yield rate" of accepted female students was significantly lower than that of male students, Klawe each year for four years wrote a handwritten card to every female who had been accepted, encouraging them to come to Harvey Mudd. Eventually, the yield rates and male/female enrollment ratios evened out, and Klawe was able to discontinue the note writing, which she said required a considerable amount of time but was worth the effort.

Create opportunities for future female applicants to get hands-on with computer science

Organize an event for prospective female students that includes hands-on activities to show young women that IT and other STEM-related disciplines can be interesting and something in which they can excel.

Harvey Mudd College annually holds a day-long conference for local high school girls to involve them with lots of hands-on activities—a robotics lab, a chemistry labs, web development, or bridge-building with sticks and marshmallows, for example. Enthusiastic undergraduate women help staff the event. "Young women can see fun, interesting things to do in areas they have not been exposed to in high school," says Klawe. "The most important thing is that they're not just listening to someone tell them that it's interesting, they're actually getting to do it themselves."

Apply theory early and often in introductory computer courses

Make sure intro computer courses use a problem-solving approach to discuss theory and concepts, and that lessons are tightly tied to application demonstrations. "Employ a problem-solving computational approach versus just teaching a course about programming," urges Klawe. "Young women, as well as many young men, want to know what you can do with the things you learn in class, rather than just understand the concepts. Get the application point of view in there early."

Introduce female students to the larger community of women in IT ASAP

Each year, Harvey Mudd College offers each incoming female student the opportunity to attend—all expenses paid—the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women Conference, a program of the Anita Borg Institute of Women & Technology that takes place each fall. Between 30 to 40 percent of its first year females attend the event, in addition to 10 or so upperclasswomen. Nearly half of the event’s attendees are students (undergraduate, graduate and some high school). "It's an amazing experience, a really inspirational event for students," says Klawe. "There are about 75 men there out of the 3,000 people in the conference center, so students are surrounded by these enthusiastic women who are IT professionals." Student can network to learn about graduate schools, career opportunities and internships. Klawe adds that raising money to send young women to the Grace Hopper Celebration event has been incredibly easy. "All the tech companies are just going crazy to find more women employees; they are happy to help."

Involve female students in research early

"There's lots of studies that show if you give young women research experience between their first and second years of college, you are more likely to retain them in the discipline," Klawe says. IT-related research can help students—male or female—feel as if they are part of a team and introduce them to the larger community, including faculty and graduate students. "For women in particular, feeling a part of the community is a very important experience," says Klawe. "Applying what you’ve learned so far to a research project is pretty exciting too."

Cultivate highly qualified faculty members who are female

Roughly four out of 10 faculty members at math, science and engineering-centric Harvey Mudd College are female. Having a high percentage of female faculty "is not a must" for an IT program, says Klawe, but it can give student professional and personal role models. "Lots of our faculty members are having babies," says Klawe. "I think it's very healthy for young women to see computer scientists and engineers who are very successful but who also make time to have children in their life."

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