How Harvey Mudd Made Computer Geeks Chic | Elmhurst College


How Harvey Mudd Made Computer Geeks Chic

It's awfully tough to inspire women to be computer scientists when the stereotypes are so strong: a geeky male with no social skills and no life, who spends his days alone at his computer.

“It’s a mix of Dilbert, Bill Gates and Chandler from Friends,” said Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., at Elmhurst College on September 13. “Nobody could ever remember what Chandler did because it was sooo boring. Well, he was a computer scientist—a data processor.”

Of course, that’s not what most computer scientists are really like.

Klawe visited the Elmhurst College campus to share the story of how Harvey Mudd has dramatically increased the number of its computer science degrees earned by women. Her talk, “Giving Women the Access Code,” was part of the College’s yearlong Science, Technology and Society lecture series.

In 2006, when Klawe became the first woman president at Harvey Mudd, the number of women graduating from the college with computer science degrees was in the single digits. These numbers were in keeping with the national average: The United States Department of Commerce reports that women hold fewer than 25 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering and math.

“The people I know who are majoring in computer science are really well rounded people, they have lots of interests, and they love working in teams. They communicate well … completely different from the stereotype,” she said. “They are swimmers, cross country athletes. They don’t look or act differently from the general student body.”

Klawe, herself, shatters the stereotype. Besides her expertise in math, engineering and computer science, she plays trumpet and electric guitar, is a serious watercolor artist, and can often be seen traversing the Harvey Mudd campus by her preferred mode of transportation: her skateboard.

Women typically shy away from the field of computer science because they think it will be boring, Klawe said, or that they won’t be good at it. But at Harvey Mudd, where all freshmen are now required to take Computer Science and the curriculum has been reworked to make the class more interesting, more and more women are drawn to the field.

Klawe said the demand for computer science graduates is increasing, in part because the tech industry is growing, but also because computer science applications are becoming more important in every area of society, such as health care, education and the music industry.

“There’s so many different ways you can use that knowledge to make a difference in the world today,” said Klawe, citing examples of CS grads working on modeling for epidemiology to study the spread of disease in Africa, or applications in anthropology or economics. “It’s one of the most versatile set of skills you can have today. And the job opportunities are phenomenal.”

Introducing more women to computer science, Klawe said, will bring new perspectives to the field. But Klawe acknowledged that the wider goal is to bring more overall diversity to the computer science table.

“I’ve been trying to work to make the STEM fields more supportive of not just females, but people who are poets and artists and African Americans and people with different sexual orientation,” she said. “It shouldn’t matter. Anyone who is passionate and willing to work hard in science and engineering or mathematics—we ought to support that.”

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