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To Get Women To Work In Computer Science, Schools Get Them To Class


Across so many different workplaces - courtrooms, hospitals, police forces, construction sites - there's been a consistent narrative for the past five decades. More and more women are working there, but there is one exception - tech. Since 1984, the percentage of women studying computer science in college has plunged. We heard one explanation on the program yesterday; home computers have increasingly been marketed to boys. This morning Steve Henn from our Planet Money team reports on what schools are doing to bring women back in.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: A generation ago there was this stereotype about girls and math. It was summed up, at the time, in the mouth of a talking Barbie.


BARBIE: Math class is tough.

HENN: Math class is tough, but the reality has changed.

MARIA KLAWE: Girls have been doing as well in math in high school for probably 30 years now as boys.

HENN: Maria Klawe is a mathematician and computer scientist and the president of Harvey Mudd College. She says the reason this reality changed is that math became a requirement for college admission.

KLAWE: You can't go to law school, you can't go to med school, you can't really go into any profession without taking math every single year, and that made a huge difference.

HENN: Today if you don't take math in high school, it's tough to do much else. And Klawe would love it if computer science was treated the same way - but it's not. So today by the time most kids get to college, a few of them have a ton of experience coding, while most have almost none.

KLAWE: You know, often in computer science classes, there's a couple of usually geeky guys - and I just want to point out I'm married to a geeky guy and have one as a son, so I happen to really like geeky guys, but, you know.

HENN: It can be tough to sit next to a computer genius in class, especially if you're a complete neophyte. So eight years ago, Harvey Mudd's faculty created two different intro to computing science classes. One for folks who had no experience or very little and one for the self-taught, quote, "experts," and just that one simple change has made a huge difference in the number of women who've decided to study computing. A few years ago, less than 10 percent of computer science majors at Mudd were women. Now it's more than 40 percent.

NAJULA BOULOUS: My name is Najula Boulous.

HENN: Najula Boulous became a computer science major at Mudd after falling in love with the subject during one of those redesigned intro classes. She's now a senior, and she's looking for jobs. And this is a crucial moment for her and for women in technology. Now that some schools are doing a better job at getting women into CS classes, they need to get jobs and then thrive in them.

BOULOUS: I am aware that people - not everyone's going to think that I can make it.

HENN: At most big tech companies in Silicon Valley, fewer than 1 in 5 technical employees are women. And women programmers are roughly twice as likely as men to leave the field. There's still some places here were the baseline assumption is that women can't code.

BOULOUS: My response is just, like, what-evs. Like, I'm tired of having to tell people that I can do it and that women can do it in general. And I am, like, a strong believer that, like, people should educate themselves on these issues.

HENN: Harvey Mudd isn't the only university that's been able to increase enrollment for women in computer science. Carnegie Mellon took similar steps more than a decade ago. This year, 15 schools around the country will adopt the same model. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.