Women in Technology

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A Fifty Year Wave of Change

by Maria Klawe
09/05/2007

Maria Klawe is the President of Harvey Mudd College.

A few years ago, a friend and I were sitting on a cliff overlooking the city of Vancouver, B.C. As we admired the cityscape, the mountains, and the ocean, my friend asked, "Don't you wish you had been born 50 years earlier so you could have lived here before Vancouver became a big city?"

I responded with horror, "If I'd been born 50 years earlier, my life would have been totally miserable. As a woman, it would have been almost impossible for me to have a career in technology, to become a mathematician, or to be a leader in academia and computer science. And I certainly couldn't have combined all this with being married and having two children."

Today, I am President of Harvey Mudd College, a tiny, incredible undergraduate college that educates some of the brightest students in the world in engineering, science, and mathematics. I'm the first female president at Mudd; many of the alumni say they thought they'd never see a female president in their lifetimes. Before coming to HMC one year ago, I was the first female dean of engineering at Princeton University (alumni there had similar comments), the first female dean of science at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the first female senior vice-president at UBC, the first female head of a science department at UBC, etc. When I've applied for jobs, sometimes being female has been an advantage, but, most often, my sense is that my gender has been relatively unimportant in comparison to other criteria being considered.

As a child of the 1950s, I have spent my life being part of the wave of change for women in math, science, and engineering. While I was in high school, my teachers routinely said that girls couldn't do math or physics. While I was in college, some professors would ask me why I wanted to be a mathematician since "there are no good women mathematicians." Despite such comments, most of my teachers and professors were delighted to have a female student who loved mathematics, and they encouraged and supported me. They also got me started in K–12 outreach activities to convince girls, teachers, and parents that girls can excel in math and science and that doing well in high school math is essential for success in any professional career.

Today, about 45 percent of undergrad math majors and about 30 percent of the Ph.D. recipients are female. And it's much rarer to hear someone say, "Girls can't do math." Similar changes have been happening to differing degrees in almost every area of science and engineering. It's exciting to see dramatic increases in the number of women in this year's entering classes at the top science and engineering schools. Caltech's class of 2011 is 37 percent female, a huge increase over previous years. At Harvey Mudd College, the class of 2011 is almost 43 percent female, again a huge increase for Mudd, but still less than at MIT with 46 percent of its entering class female. Princeton's engineering class of 2011 is almost 40 percent female. Such large numbers of female students dramatically change the culture inside and outside the classroom, and both male and female students appreciate the difference.

In many ways, this is the best time ever to be a female student in a technical area. Most of the leading high-tech companies are trying to increase the recruitment and retention of women, and they are doing it for business reasons. They value the diverse perspectives women bring to technical teams and have found that women tend to make excellent project managers because of their people and organizational skills. There are more female professors in science and engineering than ever before, though in some fields (such as biology and chemistry), the numbers are still significantly lower than one would expect given the increased numbers of women receiving Ph.D.s.

Is everything rosy for women in technology? Unfortunately, the answer is no. In the computer science (CS) field in which I've ended up working, participation by women has been steadily decreasing at the undergraduate level. Despite hard work by many people, we haven't turned that around yet. Today, the percentage of CS bachelor's degrees granted in research universities to women is at 14 percent, its lowest ever (see http://www.cra.org/info/taulbee/women.html). Many of the top departments are reporting female enrollments of fewer than 10 percent in their CS major programs. The situation at the doctoral level is a bit better, with between 15 and 18 percent of CS Ph.D.s going to women over the last seven years, and the percentage of women faculty in CS departments steadily increasing.

Young women often think computer science is boring, and they think they wouldn't be good at it. They see computer people as those who spend all their time programming and who have no life. And if that's not enough to discourage them, there's the myth that all the IT jobs have gone to India and China. The reality is that the demand for computer science graduates continues to be the highest among all areas of science and engineering. Moreover, because information technology is increasingly important in a huge range of applications, ranging from health to entertainment to finance to sustainable energy, computer scientists have opportunities to work in a vast array of disciplines. Like most other technical jobs, being a successful computer scientist requires talent and skill in problem-solving, communication, creativity, and teamwork.

Attracting significantly more young women to study computer science is likely to require effort on several fronts. It would be a huge help if the media provided more examples of male and female computer scientists who have interesting lives. I know lots of such people. So why are we still stuck with the Dilbert image? Introductory computer science courses should inspire students with the power and breadth of computational concepts and approaches and with how these are transforming our world. We should develop and promote more courses and programs that combine computer science with areas such as biology, art, psychology, or business. Institutions that have implemented such approaches have seen substantial increases in their numbers of female students.

What about the situation for the most senior women in technology: those in senior executive positions or just below? Is the glass ceiling truly shattered? From what I've experienced and seen happen to others, there remain some special problems for female leaders. Women in top positions are usually under more scrutiny than their male peers. Many people suspect they were hired because they are female. When a female leader makes a mistake—as everyone does sooner or later—such beliefs are reinforced. When a female leader selects a woman for a senior position, she is assumed to be biased, whereas if a male leader selects other males for senior positions it is considered to be business as usual. A woman bursting into tears because of anger is seen as unacceptably emotional and weak. A man banging the table in anger is seen as demonstrating strength.

The preceding examples apply to female leaders in all areas. However, being perceived as too aggressive for a key position is common for women in technology, though it would seldom block a male candidate. Most women in the early stages of technical careers have found some level of aggressiveness is necessary to survive and succeed. Every woman who I know in technology has experienced the following phenomenon many times: you are the only woman in a meeting and you make a suggestion. No one reacts. A few minutes later, a man suggests the same idea and everyone gets excited about what a great idea it is. While there are techniques for handling this phenomenon gracefully (e.g., ask a male friend attending the meeting to repeat your idea while acknowledging it as your idea), it's not surprising that successful technical women tend to speak strongly and defend their ideas. Most women who reach top positions in technology have had to learn how to soften their personality so as not to be seen as overly intimidating or polarizing. And, yes, being quieter and gentler is something I work on all the time.

Today, what inspires me most about being a senior woman in technology is the opportunity to help create positive change for everyone. This opportunity far outweighs any of the difficulties I've mentioned. Being president at Harvey Mudd College is my favorite job ever and I'm thrilled to be part of a community focused on educating technical leaders—female and male—who will understand the impact of their work on society.


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