Why Most Of This College's Engineering Students Are Women

Why Most Of This College's Engineering Students Are Women

In 2013, only 19 percent of fresh-faced college graduates with engineering degrees were women, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Experts point fingers in all directions to explain this huge gender gap. Maybe young girls aren't being encouraged to do science and math? Maybe they don't have enough confidence? Maybe, as some have ignorantly suggested, they just aren't as inherently good with numbers as their male counterparts?

But at Harvey Mudd College just 30 miles east of Los Angeles, that ratio isn't a problem. This year, the school graduated a class in which 56 percent of the engineering students were female.

The Huffington Post sat down with Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd's first female president, to ask how the school attracts more women to its engineering programs.

Her answer: It's easier than you think.

I heard you speak Fortune Brainstorm about ways to get more women into engineering, and you mentioned this idea of making engineering classes less "testosterone-filled" and turning them into creative, problem-solving classes. Can you tell us more about that?

One of the things that we know works is to use team-based activities to create an environment where you're not competing for grades and where everyone helps each other. You need an environment which not only values the people who answer the questions first, but tries to engage the entire class -- rather than always having one or two people, usually males, dominating the conversation.

What we see happen when we do that is that it not only increases the number of women in those classes, it also increases the number of students of color and and others who don't often feel like the dominant group in engineering or computer science. If you make it an environment that is supportive of everyone, you have a lot of success.

Klawe on stage with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in 2005 at the company's headquarters outside Seattle. At the time, she was dean of engineering at Princeton. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

What role do you think this "testosterone culture" usually plays in classes that makes them less appealing to minorities and women?

Most young women -- and lots of men, as well -- don't want to be in an environment where you are constantly expected to prove that you are better than other people. They are much more comfortable in an environment where everyone works together to make everyone more successful.

By contrast, the testosterone culture is highly competitive with lots of bragging and lots of ridicule if you don't know something that someone thinks everyone should know. The mindset is that we're all here to show how smart we are and how much better we are than everyone else. It's not a good environment for most people.

You also talked at the Fortune Brainstorm about the importance of gender representation: having as many females as males in engineering department promotions, and having equal numbers of male and female tour guides. Why did you conclude that was important?

When I was dean of engineering at Princeton, it was typical that all the other deans of engineering schools sent their magazines out three times a year. I flipped through the pages of each one and counted how many women were there. I remember I got a magazine from Brigham Young, and there wasn't a single photo of a woman -- although there were hundreds of men pictured.

If you see that, it's pretty easy to say, "Let's make sure that every magazine and recruitment brochure we produce contains representation of the range of students that we aspire to." It would be like the Army only depicting white males when they are trying to recruit females and people of color.

What tips would you give to other universities that want to increase female enrollment in engineering programs?

The first thing you want to do is to ensure that the introductory courses are really compelling, to show students that the tools of engineering and computer science allow you to solve really interesting problems. You want to frame the introductory courses not as competitions but as creative problem-solving.

The second factor is building confidence in the community, really making all of your students feel like they're likely to succeed. Everybody does better if there are high expectations. So we say "This is going to be really challenging -- you're going to work really hard. You need to learn how to ask for help because you're going to need help, and you're going to need to help each other. But you will all succeed if you do those things." Building confidence in the community is key.

The final thing is it's important to offer majors that are joint between an area that lots of women are interested in and an area in which they are under-represented. For instance, computational biology majors -- we've had great success getting women who are interested in biology to major in computer science and biology, or math and biology.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community