Tackling the Computer Science Gender Gap ; Schools Work to Make Basic Courses More Appealing to Women

By Hafner, Katie | International Herald Tribune, April 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Tackling the Computer Science Gender Gap ; Schools Work to Make Basic Courses More Appealing to Women


Hafner, Katie, International Herald Tribune


At a California school, changing the structure and focus of courses in computer programming has created inroads for women in the field.

When Maria Klawe became president of Harvey Mudd College in 2006, she was dismayed, but not surprised, at how few women majored in computer science.

A mathematician and computer scientist, she arrived at Harvey Mudd, the smallest of the five so-called Claremont Colleges, during a growing downturn for women in computer science across the United States. As recently as 1985, 37 percent of graduates in the field were women; by 2005 it was down to 22 percent, and sinking.

The situation at Mudd was even grimmer. Of the college's 750 students, about a third were female (the figure is now closer to half), but for years the percentage of computer science graduates had been stuck in the single digits.

Ms. Klawe and her faculty turned things around: This year, nearly 40 percent of Harvey Mudd's computer science degrees will go to women. How they accomplished that sheds light on a gender gap that elsewhere remains stubbornly resistant to changing times.

Thanks in part to companies like Facebook, Yelp and Zynga and in part to cultural sensations like the movie "The Social Network," coders are hip and computer science is hot. Departments across the United States are brimming with students.

But those students are overwhelmingly male. In 2010, just 18.2 percent of undergraduates in the field were women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in spite of gains in chemistry, biomechanical engineering and other so-called STEM fields (the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

"It must be the unique area of science and technology where women have made negative progress," said Nicholas Pippenger, a mathematics professor at Harvey Mudd, who is married to Ms. Klawe.

She and others say the underrepresentation of women in the field is detrimental in a larger sense. Ms. Klawe sits on the board at Microsoft, where women now hold 20 percent of the technical jobs. Computer science, she and others say, is as vital to propelling society forward in the digital era as mechanical engineering was in the industrial age.

"If we're not getting more women to be part of that, it's just nuts," Ms. Klawe said. At Mudd, she continued, "we're graduating 20 female computer science majors a year, and every one of them is a gem." In 2005, the year before Ms. Klawe arrived, a group of faculty members embarked on a full makeover of the introductory computer science course, a requirement at Mudd.

Known as CS 5, the course focused on hard-core programming, appealing to a particular kind of student -- young men, already seasoned programmers, who dominated the class. This only reinforced the women's sense that computer science was for geeky know-it-alls.

"Most of the female students were unwilling to go on in computer science because of the stereotypes they had grown up with," said Zachary Dodds, a computer science professor at Mudd. "We realized we were helping perpetuate that by teaching such a standard course."

To reduce the intimidation factor, the course was divided into two sections -- "gold," for those with no previous experience, and "black" for everyone else. …

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