Faculty members and campus decision makers nationwide for years have warned of falling rates of women students in the computer sciences, which hasn’t always been so thoroughly dominated by men. In 1985, nearly four in 10 undergraduate computer science degrees were awarded to women. By 2009, that number had plummeted to 18 percent. The U.S. technology industry reflects a similar trend: Two in 10 programmers are women, according to a 2011 report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of students who earn a computer science degree plummeted for a decade after the dot-com crash of 2001, but while men receiving those degrees dropped by 35 percent, women graduating in computer science dropped by 67 percent at research institutions.
The startling lack of women in computer sciences and at technology startups, Schofield said, has made college women suspicious even when companies recruit them.
“There’s this very subtle culture that says men are better at this, but we still need some women just to look good,” said Schofield, 20.
Harvey Mudd’s seven-year push for women in computer science courses could be the antidote for the impact of the “brogrammer” culture and, quite possibly, a national model for higher education, said Ran Libeskind-Hadas, a chair in the college’s computer sciences department.
By requiring students to take an introductory computer science class, creating a class for students with little experience in the language of computers, and offering tangible examples of how computer science can be applied in the professional world, Harvey Mudd officials have watched women in the school’s computer science major jump from 10 percent in 2005 to around 40 percent last year.
Even the college’s advanced computer science class, known at Harvey Mudd as “boot camp for programming,” has seen a massive influx of women students. Before 2007, there were never more than two women in the program’s “boot camp.” Now, there are 23.
Libeskind-Hadas said separating freshmen who come to campus with years of programming experience and those with little or no background in computer science was a centerpiece of the college’s effort to narrow the program’s gender gap. This gave inexperienced students—both women and men—a far less intimidating introduction to a complex field.
“You don’t get these super macho students who raise their hands all the time and know the answer to everything all the time,” Libeskind-Hadas said. “That’s not a very welcoming atmosphere for less experienced students. And we’re quite aware that men come to college with more experience with computers. They have no more ability than women, just more experience.”
(Next page: Lower expectations for women programmers?)