Earlier this year, Maria Klawe persuaded Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella to spend a day at the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Phoenix this October.
She dangled the prospect of his becoming the first man ever to be a headline speaker at the event. For the 8,000 female technologists and diversity activists planning to attend, Klawe herself may be the bigger draw.
Since she became president of Harvey Mudd College in 2006, the 800-student liberal arts college near Los Angeles has made tangible progress creating a blueprint for encouraging women to become computer scientists. Last year, more than half the school’s engineering majors were female for the first time. Women made up a record 47 percent of its computer science majors.
Bigger challenges lie beyond Harvey Mudd’s gates. Across the country only 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering go to women, and there’s still a dearth of female computer scientists at the most influential technology companies.
“We love that Harvey Mudd is producing great talent and showing great leadership, but people still tend to hire people like themselves,” said Evan Wittenberg, senior vice president of people at Box Inc., a storage startup based in Los Altos, California. “The industry norms are pretty sad.”
The school’s advances have coincided with heightened scrutiny of the technology industry’s demographics. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, women received a slightly higher percentage of bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2013 -- 19.1 percent -- than they did in 2009, when the number was 17.8 percent. A U.S. Census Bureau report found women’s employment in computer occupations was 27 percent in 2011. By comparison, in 2013 women made up 47 percent of the total ranks of the employed in the U.S.
The gap is even bigger at many large technology companies. After years of refusing to publicly disclose diversity data, Google Inc. said in May that 17 percent of its technical employees are women. Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. said women make up 15 percent and 10 percent of their respective technological staffs. And comments from entrepreneurs, such as Uber Technologies Inc.’s Travis Kalanick and Snapchat Inc.’s Evan Spiegel, have raised concerns about chauvinism in the startup community.
Klawe, who was born in Canada and lived in Scotland as a child, has melded lessons gleaned from a long career that included stints as an International Business Machines Corp. researcher and dean of Princeton University’s engineering school. Now, as head of a college with a focus on science and technology, her mission is to encourage young women who hadn’t considered a career in technology to move in that direction.
“I’d be surprised if 20 of our 85 graduates last year had any experience with computer science before college,” Klawe, 63, said in an interview at her office, decorated with many of her own abstract paintings.
Linnea Nelson, going into her sophomore year at Mudd, said upper-classmen eased her mind by telling her the introductory class was easy.
“If it had been a different school, I’d have been too afraid to take it,” said Nelson, who said she’s likely to major in computer science. “We grow up with this idea that you have to be a guy who’s been programming in his parents’ basement since he was 5 to study computer science.”
Klawe’s formula starts with hiring plenty of female faculty. This year, four of seven department chairs at Mudd are women, as are five of 13 computer science professors. About 23 percent of female applicants are accepted, versus 9.8 percent of men, Klawe said.
Once a female student is accepted, she is showered with phone calls from faculty and students seeking to persuade her to attend Harvey Mudd.
“They put on a full-court press,” said Dan Garcia, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “They can reach girls who might be wondering if they’re going to be the only girl in a room full of boys. With 6,400 young women being admitted each year, we can’t do that.”
Once classes begin, all students -- female and male -- must take an introductory computer science class called CS-5. Mudd professors are under orders from Klawe to urge students to consider making computer science their minor, if not their major. The pitch is that knowing the basics will help the students in any field they choose, and provide a lucrative backup plan.
“Instead of being another biology grad that didn’t get into a good med school, you’re a biology grad that can go to Google and make $95,000 as a programmer,” Klawe said.
CS-5 and follow-on courses focus on how computer science can be applied to real challenges, from education to entertainment to medicine. It’s also designed to be fun. In one assignment, teams of students used computers to analyze DNA streams to see which of their professors was lactose intolerant, said Samantha Stilson, a Mudd senior.
“I was afraid it was going to be all that math stuff -- I hate math,” Stilson said. “But it was about real-life problems.”
If CS-5 piqued Stilson’s interest, attending the Grace Hopper conference -- as all first-year Mudd women are invited to do -- sealed the deal. At this year’s event, named for a pioneering computer scientist in the 1950s who became a rear admiral in the Navy, Klawe will interview Microsoft’s Nadella onstage. Klawe has been on Microsoft’s board since 2009.
“I credit Grace Hopper with being the reason I wanted to go into tech at all,” Stilson said. “I’m majoring in international relations, but I’m doing computer science because I couldn’t give it up.”
Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, is a sponsor of the conference.
Mudd has opened its technology-related courses to students at four nearby schools that are also part of the Claremont Colleges. Last fall, 117 women from these schools took computer-science courses at Mudd, up from 13 in 2010.
Other schools are also gaining ground. Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh has been adding programs since the late 1990s, including “sleeping bag weekends,” in which current female students spend time with prospective ones, said professor Lenore Blum. The incoming class in the school’s computer science program this year is 40 percent female.
Stanford University’s bachelor’s degrees in computer science awarded have jumped to 23 percent from 8 percent women in the past three years, while Berkeley has gone to 23 percent from 13 percent, according to the American Society of Engineering Education.
While her progress has been admirable, Klawe’s efforts -- at a small, well-funded school that costs $48,000 a year -- aren’t a panacea, said Ignatios Vakalis, head of the computer science department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
Most programs can’t afford to hire sought-after female professors, and publicly financed state schools aren’t allowed to tip the application process to accept more women or create gender-specific scholarships, he said. At Cal Poly, the incoming class of computer science majors has risen to 29 percent women this year from 15 percent in 2011, he said.
“Maria is my role model, and a wonderful person and computer scientist,” Vakalis said. “But as she will acknowledge, her model works best at small private schools.”
Klawe is optimistic about Silicon Valley’s ability to adopt lessons learned at Mudd. She cites Facebook as an example. A few years ago, she suggested the Menlo Park, California-based company hire a promising researcher named Fiona Condon, only to be told she wasn’t technical enough.
Now, she said the world’s largest social-networking company has worked to improve its hiring practices. While women make up 15 percent of Facebook’s technical staff, she’s been told that’s an increase from 2.5 percent in 2008.
Achieving gender equality may be tougher in the world of technology finance and startups. About 4 percent of venture capital partners are women, according to a recent Fortune magazine survey.
To counter this, male financiers need to test their own behavior and look out for chauvinism at their portfolio companies, said Venky Ganesan, a partner at Menlo Ventures. That includes taming the so-called brogrammer culture at some startups founded and staffed by men just out of college.
“A lot of these guys haven’t experienced the fullness of life,” Ganesan said. “As VCs, hopefully we can help.”
Klawe is concerned about hidden biases at the venture firms themselves. On a recent trip to Silicon Valley, she was shocked by the attire of the receptionists in offices along Sand Hill Road.
“They’re all wearing low-cut blouses and short skirts,” she said. “I was just stunned. I mean, what century are we in?”
Still, at the technology companies themselves, the new push for diversity has given women one measurable advantage, said Cal Poly’s Vakalis: top female graduates in computer science now make about $5,000 more than male peers, he said.
“There’s an unquenchable thirst to get more women into tech,” he said. “These young women know this, and play the game to get the compensation they deserve.”
(An earlier version of this story was corrected in the 19th paragraph to show that not all first-year women at Harvey Mudd attend the Grace Hopper conference.)