Maria Klawe delivers Presidential Colloquium on increasing female representation in STEM careers

Photo by Leslie Vicente Soto '18 | Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, discusses strategies to increase female representation in STEM careers.  

Sunnie Yi Ning '18 Assistant News Editor

Last week, Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, delivered a lecture as part of the Presidential Colloquium on getting more women into science careers at the Alumnae House. The talk attracted many Smith students, faculty and locals.

Maria Klawe is a computer scientist and scholar, who is interested in increasing women’s representation in STEM fields. A mathematician by training, she received a Ph.D. in computer science and spent eight years as a researcher at IBM. She was a faculty member at the University of British Columbia and Princeton University prior to joining Harvey Mudd.

In 2006, she became the first woman to lead Harvey Mudd since its founding in 1955. At Harvey Mudd, she greatly increased the amount of women who major in STEM.

Klawe focused on the strategies to increase female representation and attract women to computer science. She started by explaining why it matters that the industry needs more women. The demand for the industry has never been higher, the jobs are dependable and women can be involved in a solution to the world’s problem through technological development.

The primary reason that women leave STEM careers is that they see men getting more opportunities for promotions. Another barrier for women’s retention in the industry is that, unless women are in high-level positions, asking for promotions or accomodations is often seen as a sign they do not take their job seriously. Even at the undergraduate level, women are discouraged by the male dominated environment.  In 2012, only 18 percent of computer sciences undergraduate degree recipients were women, 19 percent lower than in 1985. Therefore, changes are needed at all levels of the academia.

When Klawe became the first woman to serve on the board of the Computing Research Association, she co-founded CRA-W, the highly successful committee on the status of women in computing research. The Committee did a lot of community building to provide women with more support in academia. They paired undergraduate women with established female faculty members. They hosted workshops to assist women with early academic success, obtaining tenure tracks and becoming promoted to full professors. As a result, they saw an increase in the number of female computer scientists at every level.

At Harvey Mudd, the success was even more rapid. Twenty years ago, female students only made up 20 percent of the student body; now it is about 47 percent. The percentage of computer science undergraduate degree recipients increased from 10 to 40 percent. This was done by appealing to women students’ interest, creating a more supportive environment and providing them with more resources. The computer science department changed the introduction course and linked female students to professional opportunities.

Klawe emphasized that changing the culture for better representation for women is actually easy. The community can greatly increase diversity without compromising academic excellence by providing a safer environment in the smallest details, such as using gender-neutral language. Allowing the community to have ownership of the change can also create a better environment for women than having only a few leaders making the change.

Klawe admitted that we still have not eliminated women’s underrepresentation. “We are a community in transition,” she said of Harvey Mudd. “It is important to admit what we had done wrong so that we can change it for the better.”

President Kathleen McCartney said that Harvey Mudd “provides a road map” to changes for equal representation of women in STEM academia and industries.