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Bridging the Gender Gap: Why More Women Aren’t Computer Scientists, Engineers

April 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
"If you completely shut out the entire feminine perspective on the world," says Maria Klawe of Harvey Mudd College, "you're going to have a different set of products." Judy Woodruff and Klawe discuss why more women aren't pursuing careers in hard sciences, and Klawe's plans to bridge the gaps in engineering and computer science.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Ellen Jorgensen aside, why are most women not pursuing careers in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math at the same rate as men?

I recently put that question to Maria Klawe. She’s president of Harvey Mudd College in California. She was in Washington to attend a conference about changing that trend.

Dr. Maria Klawe, thank you for talking with us.

MARIA KLAWE, Harvey Mudd College: It’s a pleasure to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when it comes to women — girls and women and going into the sciences, what happens in this country? Because we look at what is happening in high school and college, and there are so many more young men who are moving in that direction than young women. Why is that?

MARIA KLAWE: Well, we gets lots of young women going into chemistry and biology. Many of those think they’re going to go to med school afterwards.

But we get very few young women going into computer science and physics and areas of engineering. And we even know the reason why it’s the case. It’s because, number one, they think it’s not interesting, and, number two, they think they wouldn’t be good at it. And, number three, they have the image of the people in those fields that they don’t think is attractive.

And what we encourage our young people do in this country is follow your passion. Well, if you don’t think it’s interesting and you don’t think you’d well at it, would you go there? Probably not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why is it that boys in school, young men, think it is interesting and young women don’t? What’s the difference there?

MARIA KLAWE: Because I think the image is that this is a boy thing.

So, for instance, if you do – we’ve done lots of research on children as — in elementary school, in middle school and in high school. And if you ask girls and boys, say, about computers, they will all say it’s boy thing.

Not using computers. Everybody uses computers and phones and slates and stuff like that. But when they think about actually becoming somebody who would create things with computers, who would actually study computer science, both boys and girls think that’s something that boys do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why does it matter that we have more girls interested in the sciences?

MARIA KLAWE: That’s such a great question.

So, for me, there are really three reasons. The first one is, these are amazing careers. Particularly right now in computer science, the job opportunities are incredible. And it doesn’t matter — I mean it’s not just about going to work for a place like Google or Microsoft or Facebook. It’s about doing computer science in medicine, or doing computer science in arts, or doing computer science in languages, or doing educational software.

So the first thing is the careers are out there that pay really well. They’re very flexible, great opportunities to combine a career with family. So I hate that young women don’t get that opportunity. The second one is what gets created in technology today depends on who’s doing the creation.

I’ll talk about computer games for a moment. So, for a very long time, virtually all the computer games were built by young men and somewhat older men, and played by young men and somewhat older men. And so we had shoot-’em-ups, we had lots of violence, we had sports.

Now, all of a sudden, what has happened is, the game publishers and the game developers and the Nintendo and Sony and so on have realized that the market for video games has plateaued. And so now they’re going after young women and older women. And, all of a sudden, we’re seeing games that are really fun.

So the first example is “The Sims,” which came out of Electronic Arts and became the most popular computer game ever played. A lot of the people associated with “The Sims” were female.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s a bigger — it’s a bigger issue than playing games. I mean, that’s important, but it’s also the skills that. . .

MARIA KLAWE: It’s the skills. It’s what kind of user interfaces do we have. It’s what kind of medical devices get created. I mean it’s just the whole ideas. If you have — if you completely shut out the entire feminine perspective on the world, you are going to have a different set of products.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’ve been working on this for years. You said a minute ago they don’t think it’s interesting. How do you get them interested and how do you make them confident that they can do it?

MARIA KLAWE: Well, let me answer in two ways.

If I could wave my magic wand and just change the world right this second, I would change the way that the media — the way that the media portrays careers in science and engineering, because we tend to think of those people as dorks and dweebs and geeks and nerds, et cetera.

And I would show them the way, back in the ’70s, we started to show doctors and lawyers, where there are women and men who had lives, who fell in love and out of love and had all kinds of problems. And, all of a sudden, we saw the numbers of women going into medicine and into law skyrocketed, and it’s basically 50-50 now.

So that would be the easy solution. It seems to be a difficult nut to crack.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Changing the image.

MARIA KLAWE: Changing the image.

So what I actually recommend right now is, the problem is, if you do a program at the middle school level, and you get girls interested, they’ve got another four years of high school for peer pressure to get them disinterested again. And it mostly happens.

So my recommendation is you actually do it right when they enter college. You get them into an intro computer science course that is absolutely fascinating and fun and creative. And you have them have so much fun, that they just can’t believe that this is really computer science.

And that’s actually what we have done at Harvey Mudd College, because we have all kinds of students who arrive saying, I hate computers. But they have to take a computer science course in the first semester. And halfway through the semester, I’ll be asking them, what do you think? What’s your favorite course? And probably 90 percent say C.S.-5. I hate computers, I hate computing, but, oh, my God, that’s the greatest course ever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what about to those parents who are watching?

MARIA KLAWE: My message is, number one, try it, because you won’t know until you’ve tried it.

And also go into it , and if there are some male students in the class who seem to know way more than you do, ignore it, because they tend to show it off more. Look for an instructor who is encouraging, because that makes a huge difference. And I have had so many female students in my life who I talked into taking their first computer science course. And they’re so grateful.

They’re going like, oh, my God, I have these great career opportunities. I can do anything. I can travel around the world.

But they had to take the first course.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, a question about the national agenda.

You participated in a conference at the White House where the president talked about the importance of science and math in school, the importance of students studying that. How important is this whole question of not just women, but elevating science, math and engineering in this country in terms of the future of the United States?

MARIA KLAWE: When you think about where the economic opportunities are, it actually — it completely demands that we have to have a work force that is skilled in science, engineering and mathematics.

We do not have a future unless we achieve that. And, unfortunately, we graduate many fewer scientists and engineers and mathematicians than our competitors do. So, I truly believe that, if we are to have the kind of future that we have had in the past, we have to address getting more young people to major in those areas. We have to improve our math and science teaching in our schools.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, thank you very much for talking with us.

MARIA KLAWE: It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is Science Thursday online, where you can find our series on the gender gap in the hard sciences. We’ve posted more of our conversation with Maria Klawe.

Plus, join our live chat tomorrow on women in science. That’s at noon Eastern time. The details are on our Science page.