February 25, 2020
Dr. Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, thinks academia's usual “Prove to me you belong here” attitude for computer science and engineering majors is detrimental to diversity.
“The first year or two are what's known as weed-out courses. They're supposedly designed to identify the students who have the intellectual muscle to figure things out,” said Klawe. That attitude is a legacy of “a time when we didn't need nearly as many technically skilled talents,” she added. “We now do, and we will need more in the future.”
This survival-of-the-fittest approach, Klawe pointed out, discourages women and people of color to go into specialize areas. “Think of two different approaches,” Klawe said. “One instructor says, this is a technically challenging course; everyone will have difficulties; but everyone who works hard will do fine. Another says, this is a technically challenging course, and you'll find out if you belong in this field or not. The second way has been the cultural tradition. This has a disproportionate impact on underrepresented groups in engineering.”
The Harvey Mudd Difference
At Harvey Mudd, women account for 50% of the student body, and they are 50% in nearly every major, Klawe estimated. Furthermore, about 50% of the graduates in computer science, engineering, and physics are women, Klawe verified.
By contrast, the national average for women in computer science is only about 14% to 18%, according to the resource portal ComputerScience.org. The portal also lists top 20 schools with most women graduates in computer science. Harvey Mudd is #10 on the latest list for 2018.
“Women and men have no difference in their ability to understand technically challenging concepts,” Klawe observed. “But how you teach influences how they learn.” Figuring that out has been transformational for Harvey Mudd, she added.
Students today, Klawe said, are “more motivated by learning what they think will be important in tackling climate change or affordable healthcare, for example, than by learning abstract concepts.”
Her recent conversation with DeepMind, a leading AI technology firm, reinforces this notion. “The company has works aimed at theoretical advances in machine learning, and works to apply machine learning for social good,” Klawe recalled. “They said women's participation in the social good projects far outweighs their participation in theoretical works.”
Chances for Diversity in Automotive
According to the 2015 study titled “Women at the wheel: Recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in the automotive industry” by Deloitte and Automotive News, “While women represent 47% of the total U.S. labor force, they comprise less than a third (24%) of the automotive workforce.”
The automotive industry is now facing challenges in transforming itself to be less fossil fuel-reliant and more environment-friendly. Leading car makers are all developing hybrid models with this in mind. “Think about promoting these type of projects in recruitment to attract more women and increase diversity,” Klawe advised.
When building project teams, Klawe suggested managers should avoid putting a single woman in a team. “In discussions, it often feels very isolated for the lone woman on the team,” she pointed out. “In addition, providing female role models is incredibly important.” To her, these measures are part of the strategy to increase diversity in engineering.
At CAASE, Klawe is scheduled to give a talk titled, “Increasing diversity in the STEM workforce might be easier than you think.”
To register for the conference and learn more about Klawe, please visit the CAASE20 website.