It’s no secret that we need more women in technology-related fields. Women at universities are just not majoring in computer science at the same rate as men. In fact, women are only getting about 18 percent of the bachelors degrees in computer science. One professor found this striking imbalance in her school and wants to change it.
Maria Klawe is the president of Harvey Mudd College, a science and engineering school in southern California. Throughout the past years, she has had quite a bit of success in raising the percentage of young women at Harvey Mudd who graduate with computer science degrees. She was set on this path because of her own experience with gender discrimination. As a young mathematician, she recalls that her professors weren’t that kind to her: “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.”
The students in classes at Harvey Mudd College know that a discrepancy exists, and most of them know why. Usually, in universities, there is what is called a “weed-out class” that students have to take their first year within their major. These classes are intended to separate those who really want and deserve to be there from those who are not cut out for that particular major. After that first weed-out class in a computer science program, there usually aren’t any women left. As one Harvey Mudd student noted, “…the only people at the end are the people who have been in computer camp since they were 5.”
Since girls are not encouraged to play video games or attend computer camp at a young age, they are already far behind their male counterparts when they enter into computer science programs. To offset that disparity, Klawe has designed a program without a weed-out class. In fact, one might say it is exactly the opposite. Students who haven’t been exposed to technology camps and classes from a young age have their own class that serves as a primer to catch them up. As for that know-it-all in every class that makes less knowledgeable students feel like dropping out? They are told to chill out and let others have their chance.
This revolutionary program has changed the face of the computer science program at Harvey Mudd College, and if other schools can adapt it, we could be seeing more women computer science majors in the very near future. As we find ourselves firmly in the middle of the Digital Age, this is becoming more and more important. High-paying jobs are found most often in the technology sector (it’s no accident that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been our generation’s billionaires), and in order for women to compete, they need the degrees.
What Klawe is doing is helping to close the gender gap in technology programs, but we can do more to give young women a head start before they even enter a university setting. Klawe is planning on piloting a massive open online course aimed at high school sophomores to help get more girls interested in technology before they even decide what college they want to go to. As educators and parents, we can help young women take advantage of opportunities like these. We can also encourage girls to play video games with female protagonists, and send them to computer camp along with the boys — or, even better, we can find or create computer camps and workshops just for girls so they can begin to learn about technology in a safe space.
The bottom line is that the earlier we get girls involved in technology, the more interested they will be later in life, and the more likely they will be to start taking these all-important jobs. Maria Klawe is on the right track with her ideas, but educators and teachers need to step up and help her out.
Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon