3 Ways to Get More Women Into Tech
We read this article today and thought more people ought to see it. We especially liked the part that says, “We have found that by pairing theory with real-world applications, particularly in introductory technical courses, we can capture the interest and enthusiasm of more students — including women.” That is what we support in SIMIODE.
A version of this article appeared (p. A12) in the November 10, 2017 issue. of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
3 Ways to Get More Women Into Tech
By Maria Klawe NOVEMBER 05, 2017
We all have an interest in increasing the number of women who pursue technology careers. The demand for software engineers outstrips current supply and is expected to continue to grow. These are interesting, flexible, well-paid jobs that offer a chance to make an impact; women should have access to these careers. Yet the percentage of women graduating with computer-science and engineering degrees is still the lowest (along with physics) of all the STEM fields.
What can colleges do to support and prepare these students to pursue careers in the tech industry? Here are three key practices that have been shown to work.
1. Make courses more engaging.
At Harvey Mudd College, we have reached near gender parity in computer science and engineering by teaching courses in a way that makes the subject matter interesting and accessible for everyone. Often colleges teach technical courses by introducing theory first and then adding applications in later courses. We have found that by pairing theory with real-world applications, particularly in introductory technical courses, we can capture the interest and enthusiasm of more students — including women.
Five years after Harvey Mudd redesigned its introductory computer-science course, women went from being 10 percent of computer-science graduates to 40 percent. The course, now one of our most popular offerings, emphasizes the breadth of the field and the many ways that students can use computational approaches to benefit society.
Our engineering department also recently undertook a major redesign of its lecture-based introductory engineering course and is seeing great interest and enthusiasm from all students. In the new course, students immediately use the theory they learn in class to build their own underwater robots, run tests in a water tank, model and simulate tasks, and launch their robots in a nearby lake to gather and analyze data. Both women and men performed better in the new hands-on course than in its predecessor. More remarkably, a 20-year performance gap between male and female students in the course disappeared.
2. Build confidence and community.
Hands-on learning, as in those classes, can go a long way toward building greater confidence in women enrolled in computer-science and engineering courses. Another way to build confidence in these students is to give them opportunities to conduct research. Studies have shown that women and underrepresented students who participate in undergraduate research in a particular field are more likely to continue on in that field. At Harvey Mudd, we created research experiences that these students can participate in between their first and second year, giving them a chance to see that they can do — and enjoy — the work of computer scientists or engineer.
Those efforts are important in attracting women to technology fields and sustaining their interest — and so, too, is having a successful academic departmental culture. Successful departments foster an inclusive culture by intentionally providing opportunities, activities, and spaces in which students can build relationships with one another and with faculty members.
It helps when those faculty members don’t all look the same. Women in STEM fields benefit greatly from having female faculty role models. Colleges need to hire more female STEM-faculty members and promote them to leadership positions. When students see faculty members who look like them teaching a variety of specialties — and having taken a variety of pathways to success — they can better imagine their own possibilities.
They can also imagine their possibilities — and take steps to realize them — at professional technology conferences. That’s why Harvey Mudd sends students to the Society of Women Engineers conference, and about 50 female students each year to the Grace Hopper Celebration, the largest conference for women working in tech. Attendance at those conferences allows students to meet role models, find mentors, network, and get advice on pursuing their careers.
3. Demystify success.
Colleges can help women learn more about the path to success in technology by fostering conversations about what people do to become successful. Establishing affinity groups on campus, such as chapters of the Society of Women Engineers and the women’s chapter of the Association of Computing Machinery, not only contributes to a sense of community and belonging but also provides excellent resources to help these students better understand how to succeed in their careers.
These three approaches are not expensive or difficult to adopt. If more colleges and universities put them into practice, we can make a real contribution to increasing the number of women who pursue careers in — and contribute to the world through — technology.
Maria Klawe is a computer scientist and president of Harvey Mudd College.