Education

A Campus Champion for Women in Computer Science


As Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe strolled her Southern California campus recently, she stopped to talk with Lillian de Greef, a senior eager to discuss her plans to pursue a graduate degree in computer science. De Greef entered Mudd as a technology novice and, like a growing number of women at the school, she’s now fluent in multiple programming languages. “I just really enjoy learning about all this stuff, writing the code,” she says.

De Greef’s enthusiasm is a testament to the quiet revolution waged by Klawe, 60, since she arrived in 2006 from Princeton University, where she was dean of the engineering school. On her watch, the percentage of female computer science majors at Mudd, one of California’s prestigious Claremont colleges, has more than tripled, to 42 percent. Nationally, women account for 14 percent of college graduates in the field, according to the Computing Research Assn.

Klawe’s transformation of this small liberal arts college 35 miles east of Los Angeles has sent ripples from Seattle to Silicon Valley, where startups and technology giants are desperate to find talented developers, even as the unemployment rate hovers above 9 percent. In the U.S., women hold less than 25 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, according to the Commerce Dept. Klawe has “actually moved the numbers,” says Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. “In the midst of what is a very serious employment issue in the country, there’s a field here that’s dying for more very well qualified people.”

Harvey Mudd was already revamping its computer science curriculum when Klawe arrived, and she sped up the plans. Until 2005 the mandatory introductory computer science course taught the Java programming language, which has fallen out of favor with many modern developers. Novices were thrown in with experienced programmers, and in some years those who went on to pursue a computer science degree were 95 percent male.

The introductory course is now broken into three sections—one for those with some background in programming, another for beginners, and a third with a slant toward biology. “CS for Scientists,” as the introductory course is nicknamed, focuses on teaching problem-solving skills that can be applied to engineering, math, and other subjects. Instead of Java, the class uses the Python language, which has simpler rules and is easier to deploy in Web applications. One of the overarching goals is to “demystify the inner workings of a computer,” according to the course website.

Within two years the number of females majoring in computer science rose noticeably, says Zachary Dodds, a professor in the department since 1999. This year enrollment in what Klawe calls the “most hard-core CS class”—Data Structures and Program Development—is at an all-time high of 57 students, 40 percent of them female. Duke University, Northwestern University, and the University of California at Berkeley have borrowed strategies pioneered by Mudd to broaden the appeal of computer science and engineering.

Silicon Valley has noticed. Broadcom (BRCM), the mobile-phone chip company, asked Klawe to join its board in May. Microsoft named her to its board in 2009. She became both companies’ second female board member. “We need to keep more women interested longer in their lives in STEM subjects,” says Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, acknowledging his own company’s struggle to find women for technical roles and executive positions. Klawe’s work at Harvey Mudd “gives us something good to emulate.”

Klawe, the second-oldest of four sisters, considered herself the boy of the family growing up in Toronto and Scotland. “I spent the first 30 years of my life trying to be more male than any male,” she says. She climbed trees, did woodwork with her dad, and played the trumpet, an instrument she says other girls shunned. After earning her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in math at the University of Alberta, she began a career in academia and helped build the computer science program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She left for Princeton in 2003.

At Mudd, Klawe spends about half her time on campus, where she often rides around on a skateboard. “I look really funny” with the protective gear, she says, which helps persuade shy students to open up. She spends the rest of her time traveling to other schools, companies, and industry events. She has spoken to women engineers at companies, including a recent talk at Facebook, and earlier this year formed a group of prominent women in technology that includes Sandberg, Google (GOOG) Vice-President Marissa Mayer, and Cisco Systems (CSCO) Senior Vice-President Kathy Hill.

Klawe’s next step is to expand her STEM outreach. As the first day of classes wound down in late August, she met with the vice-president of admissions and the dean of faculty to plan recruiting events for underrepresented groups, including blacks and Latinos, with an aptitude for STEM subjects. Robert Cave, dean of faculty and a professor at Mudd since 1988, says the change in focus is long overdue. “In the last four years, we have done things that I didn’t think were possible,” Cave says.

The bottom line: Harvey Mudd has more than tripled the representation of women majoring in computer science. Silicon Valley is taking note.

Levy is a reporter for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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