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Changing the Ratio for Women in Tech

  • 17 September 2019

"Making the change isn’t hard or expensive, but takes time and perseverance."

WITS was delighted to attend the September 13th lecture in DCU by Professor Maria Klawe of Harvey Mudd College, “Changing the Ratio for Women in Tech”. Harvey Mudd College is one of the top scientific and technical colleges in the US and is a member of the Claremont colleges group in California, competing with CalTech, MIT and Stanford for students. What makes HMC so special? It has managed to change the ratio of women majoring in computer science from 15% to 50%, far ahead of Ireland’s numbers where only 18% of ICT graduates are women. Even in the US, computer science is the only STEM discipline where the percentage of women has declined in the last 35 years.

Prof. Klawe explained that making the change wasn’t hard or expensive, but took time and perseverance. Often institutions don’t even realise there’s a problem. She recalled asking a question when she was serving on the board of Microsoft in 2014, why none of the 15 candidates to replace Steve Ballmer were women, and Bill Gates wanted to know was she trying to destroy his company?

"If you can excite women about computer science in first year, you have them for life."

Although the US system for student intake is quite different to the Irish one, there are still lessons to apply. And making the change is worth doing. Having more diverse teams working on solutions to the world’s problems is essential. If the team has a common worldview, common life experiences, you miss out on potential solutions. Demand for computer science graduates is double the supply, and women are twice as likely as men to leave the industry in the first 7-10 years of their careers, citing lack of appreciation and lack of opportunity. This is clearly unsustainable, but the key time to intervene is at the first year in third level. If you can excite women about computer science in first year, you have them for life. Often you just need to be encouraging when people are doing fine but don’t think they are.

The HMC hypothesis is simple. If we:

  • make learning and work environments interesting and supportive,
  • build confidence and community among women
  • and demystify success,
  • women will come, thrive and stay.

And the practical things we can do are to:

  • Provide fun and interesting computer science and engineering courses in middle and high school
  • Change the way we teach computer science and engineering at college level
  • Learn how to recruit and retain more female faculty
  • Learn how to recruit and retain more females in the tech industry
  • Create and support networking and mentoring opportunities for females at all levels
  • Increase the visibility of the issues

When prospective students and their parents visit HMC, the photographs of previous generations of students no longer are all white men but truly reflect the diverse past. The students who act as tour guides include women and people of colour to show as well as tell that the commitment to diversity is real.

"Every student can thrive if they work hard and ask for help."

The computer science department started by changing the introductory course for first years. The concepts remained exactly the same, but the focus shifted to real-world applications like green biotech and creative problem-solving. Students from less privileged backgrounds don’t have access to the same facilities as their more privileged peers, and had been dropping out in the first year despite their natural ability. Classes were grouped by prior experience so they weren’t dominated by detailed technical questions and displays of intelligence from the highly experienced. The less experienced students had a chance to learn without being intimidated, while the more experienced ones were encouraged to take their questions out of the classroom to their tutors or lecturers one to one. While class sizes for lectures are still up to 300 for the less experienced, the practical sessions have 1 grader/tutor for every 8 students. Rather than weeding out the intake, the assumption is that every student can thrive if they work hard and ask for help. The introductory computer science course went from being the least popular to the most popular course on campus.

First year female computer science students were brought to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Here they were able to see and hear women going about their work as computer scientists, to see that it’s a perfectly suitable job for a woman, to “see people who look like me”. During the summer between first and second year, the department provided summer research experiences so they could gain more practical skills.

Changing the ratios in the faculty is just as important as in the student body. Every one of the faculties has had a female chair, and 40% of the faculty are female. HMC faculty are hired primarily for their ability to innovate in paedogogy and curriculum and still bring in prestigious National Science Foundation research funding.

To help spread the message, HMC began a collaboration called BRAID to encourage diversity for women and people of colour – essentially to share good practice and implement it in 15 computer science departments in a wide variety of institutions around the US. 5 years on, every one of the 15 departments is making progress on changing the ratios.

What about changing the culture in industry? Prof Klawe gave two examples from Accenture and Microsoft. Ellyn Shook was in her first week as chief leadership and HR officer in Accenture when she went to the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2016. She embraced the message of changing the ratio so completely that within 4 months, the percentage of women hired in technical roles in India had gone from 33% to 40%. If you were wondering where you heard of Maria Klawe before, she was interviewing fellow board member Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella when he said that women should rely on “good karma” instead of asking for raises. Klawe challenged him immediately and the backlash afterwards convinced him to recognise his biases, and more importantly to do something about it. He apologised to all Microsoft employees and mandated diversity training starting with the senior leadership team.

Finally Prof Klawe advised everyone interested in change to point it out when they see all-male shortlists (and to bring their own list of suitable women), to share strategies, to connect with each other.