Ive been passionate my whole life about getting more women into technology careers. After 40 years as an educator, here is my hypothesis: If we make learning and work environments interesting and supportive, if we build confidence and community among women, and if we demystify success, women will come, thrive and stay.
At Harvey Mudd College, where Ive served as president since 2006, weve been applying this theory and seeing results. Over a five-year period, we went from averaging 10 percent female CS majors to 40 percent; this year we are on track to graduate 45 percent women CS majors.
The CS faculty led the effort starting in 2006. They redesigned the intro computer science course to focus more on creative problem solving. Instead of traditional homework, the faculty assigned team-based projects so that students coded together. And, most important, they made the courses fun and emphasized ways in which CS can benefit society.
In order to create a supportive environment for women and other students with no prior coding experience, faculty split the intro course into two sections: black and gold (Harvey Mudds colors)with black for those who had prior programming experience and gold for those who didnt. Instructors worked deliberately to reduce the intimidation factor in these courses by eliminating a common macho effect, where a few more experienced students intimidate others because they seem to know so much more.
To strengthen female students interest in CS we offer up to twenty-five first-year women, independent of planned major, the opportunity to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (Hopper), the largest conference focusing on women computer scientists. We also take a large number of upper class female students. Hopper provides a welcoming culture, great talks about current technical topics and exposure to the breadth of jobs available in technology. Students meet a wide variety of role modelssuccessful women working in tech and enjoying it. Eight first-year students attended the inaugural trip in 2006. Last year we took about 65 students.
Faculty also created early summer research projects designed for students with minimal CS experience and encouraged female students to apply. A number of studies have shown that research experiences for undergraduate women increase retention and the likelihood they will attend graduate school. These projects allowed female students, after their first year in college, to apply their knowledge, boost their confidence and deepen their interest in CS.
Many of these innovations are not difficult to implement. Harvey Mudd is working with the Anita Borg Institute and the National Center for Women in Information Technology on the BRAID initiativebuilding, recruiting, and inclusion for diversityto support 15 U.S. universities in making similar changes to their CS departments. We have made our introductory curriculum available online and created a free MOOC for teachers who want to implement the course at both high school and college levels.
In most places, particularly in industry, the path to success can be unclear. But if you are a member of the dominant group, which in the tech industry is largely white and Asian males, you are part of a network. You may not be aware that you have access to information that others outside that dominant group dont have. No one is purposely withholding information; its just that those outside the group are often not part of the crowd thats going out to play video games or drink beer, and theres a natural flow of information that goes with social groups.
There are concrete steps that organizations and companies can take to open up the conversation about what people do to become successful.
For example, the Computing Research Associations Committee on the Status of Women, CRA-W, has made great progress in getting more women into faculty positions by clarifying the pathways to success. With National Science Foundation funding, CRA-W created the Distributed Mentor Program (DMP), in which undergraduate female students were matched by research interest with female computer scientists for a summer research experience. A follow-up study showed that students who participated in the DMP program were twice as likely to go on to get a PhD. CRA-W also created a community of PhD cohorts, in which each year they connect 250 starting female PhD students and bring them together regularly to network and gain advice. CRA-W holds workshops for the various stages of career building: how to get a career started and how to achieve early success in academia; how to get tenure; and how to achieve promotion to full professor. At every level, CRA-W works to demystify the process of achieving success, and its programs are helping to increase the number of female CS faculty in the U.S.
We need more initiatives like this in academia and industry. There are many women who do well in technology-related areascomputer science, physics, math, engineering. And not only women; African-Americans, Hispanic students and other groups underrepresented in STEM. These students are talented and have worked hard; yet they often enter career environments that are, at the very least, unsupportive and, at the worst, genuinely hostile. Everyone needs to work on creating learning and work environments that are interesting and supportive, building confidence and community, and demystifying success. We are not done. And if anyone tells you that you cant change these things, or its too hard to change them, dont believe it. We can.
This article is adapted from a speech given at the University of California at Berkeley in January 2016.