Maria Klawe is something of a tech gender diversity guru. During her 10-year tenure as president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, the percentage of female computer science majors grew from less than 15% in 2006 to 55% in 2016.
Nationally, only about 16% of computer science majors are women.
“The general idea is to make learning engaging and supportive for everyone,” Klawe said. “We want to remove the intimidation, and get rid of the idea that some people are good at computer science and some people aren’t. The truth is that everyone who works hard will succeed. We want to create an environment where everyone is expected to succeed.”
With major shortages of women and minorities at most large tech companies, and a number of technical jobs left unfilled, it behooves both universities and tech hiring managers to rethink how they are getting women into the system, Klawe said. Here are seven tips for universities to get more women interested in computer science, and employers to improve their diversity numbers.
1. Change the introductory course.
“A lot of effort went into framing the course in a way that students would likely be interested in,” Klawe said. In past years, Harvey Mudd’s intro course focused on learning to program with Java. Today, it is framed instead as “creative problem solving using computational approaches.” Students use Python instead of Java, as it is often easier to pick up, and the course emphasizes how you can apply the program creatively to solve real-world problems.
2. Separate students based on ability.
Harvey Mudd divides students enrolling in the introductory course into two groups: Gold, for students with no prior computational experience, and Black, for students who took courses like AP computer science in high school. Some students have too much coding experience for either class, and get to take another course that combines the first two courses in the sequence. “It’s not common for universities to divide by prior experience,” Klawe said. “The problem is then you have kids who have been programming since they were eight years old, who are with people who have never written a program. It’s terrifying for the students with less experience. They–particularly the women–tend to assume that everyone in class is like the guys who are talking all the time. If you separate by experience, everyone’s got a fair shot to learn.”
3. Alter the curriculum.
In many STEM courses, if you do not do well in the first few weeks of the class, you’re behind for the rest of the semester, Klawe said. “When you have women in a field where they’re underrepresented, the first time they run into trouble they are more likely to leave,” Klawe said. Harvey Mudd redesigned its computer science courses into more modular sections while still retaining the rigor. “You want to enable them to have a couple difficult weeks and still recover,” Klawe said.
4. Connect women to the wider community.
Harvey Mudd takes between 40 and 60 students each year to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, billed as the world’s largest conference of women technologists with thousands of attendees. Typically about 25 of the students participating are freshman, Klawe said. “They go and see thousands of women, from teenagers to seniors in the industry, with this buzz and passion and excitement. They see there are lots of women doing this. It doesn’t really matter what field they go into, it’s a good thing for them to see other successful, passionate women.”
5. Encourage early internship programs.
Research shows that if you can get a woman or other member of an underrepresented group an early experience doing research or an internship in that field, it increases retention in that major. “Women and underrepresented minorities tend to be more interested in what you can do with the tools, rather than an intrinsic interest in tech,” Klawe said. “Working at Google or Facebook for the summer, or in a research group at a college, will be a good thing.” Most large tech companies offer early internships.
6. Don’t force students into it.
“You don’t want to be constantly telling someone they should be a computer science major,” Klawe said. “You want to encourage the students who take the first course and like it to take the second course, and the third.”
7. Be more persist in hiring female faculty members and department chairs.
Harvey Mudd has only seven academic departments. When Klawe first arrived 10 years ago, she learned there had only been two female department chairs over the past 50 years.
This year, 38% of faculty members are women, as are six of the seven department chairs. Part of the transition involved diversity training for faculty and staff, and diversity inclusion programs every week for the entire college community. Every job search committee receives diversity and inclusion training before starting a search. “Just naturally, there are more women now getting tenure and full professor,” Klawe said. “If you have around 40% female faculty and don’t have bias in selecting department chairs, you will select women about 40% of the time.”
Tips for tech companies
Klawe also recommends the following tips for tech companies looking to hire more women and minorities:
- Reframe your job search process.
Instead of posting only the technical skills needed for a job, include the soft skills such as communication, ability to work as a team, and creative problem solving. “When you put these together you get a broader range of applicants,” Klawe said. “Women will often be attracted to a place that will value more than their ability to program in a particular language.”
The interview process at large tech companies is often adversarial, Klawe said. “Women are less comfortable trying to ‘prove’ they’re smart enough,” Klawe said. “They will interview better if you put them in an environment where it’s not competitive, and they have the opportunity to explore their strengths, instead of one where you say ‘Go code this right now.'”
- Make a friendly work environment.
“You want to make sure the actual work environment is good for everyone,” Klawe said. “If your idea of bringing the folks at your company together is beer and video games on a Friday afternoon, that’s probably not going to be the environment most young female employees will be comfortable in.” If you have a small percentage of women, give them opportunities to get to know each other, Klawe said.
- Demystify the path to success.
Make it clear to employees what it takes to get promoted and move within the company.
Several tech companies have found success by making small changes to their hiring practices, Klawe said. For example, in India, Accenture hires 17,000 software engineers every year, of which women make up 30%, Klawe said. After an HR representative heard Klawe speak at a conference, she decided to rethink the company’s job posting and interview process. After their hiring season just a few months later, the number of women rose to 42%.
“All they changed was the job post and the interview process, and began recruiting at a number of women-only engineering schools as well as the co-ed ones,” Klawe said. “It’s inspiring that they could make that kind of increase without spending money.”
Any university or tech company can make gains in diversity, no matter their size or budget, Klawe said. “It’s not expensive or difficult, but it does require focus and persistence over a number of years,” she said. “If you stop paying attention, the numbers go back down again.”
The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers
- Harvey Mudd College in California has increased the number of female computer science majors from under 15% in 2006 to 55% this year.
- To follow this example, universities should consider changing introductory courses, separating students by ability, encouraging early internships, and hiring more female faculty members.
- Tech companies who want to hire more women and minorities should look to their hiring practices, including job postings and interview styles, where many women end up excluded.