Elite Schools Are Leading Recruitment of Women Into Tech

Barriers preventing women from pursuing computing fields are increasing, despite the millions of dollars that are spent every year to reverse this trend.

Women earned only 18% of the U.S.'s bachelor's degrees in computer and information sciences in 2013, down from 27% a decade prior. The numbers are even worse for data restricted to "pure" computer science (C.S.), which excludes related but distinct fields like information technology and computer graphics (see graph below).

"We're going backwards in a field that's supposed to be all about going forward," said presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, discussing this issue in a February interview.

However, buried in these data is a glimmer of hope. Several elite C.S. programs like Harvey Mudd, Stanford, and University of Washington are unlocking the secrets about how to reverse these troubling trends. At these elite programs, women's share of C.S. degrees has been slowly but steadily increasing during the past five years.

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[How were elite programs defined?]

This trend is especially good news for tech giants like Google and Microsoft that extensively recruit from elite C.S. programs. In the past, these companies have found proportionally less women at elite C.S. programs than elsewhere. However, this situation has reversed in the past five years.

Private schools such as MIT and Stanford contributed the most to these encouraging trends, but two elite public schools also enjoyed recent success: University of California at Berkeley and University of Washington. At Berkeley, women even outnumbered men in taking an introductory computer science course last year.

Although elite programs improved as a group, many specific programs were stagnant. Among top 25 C.S. programs, women earned less than 10 percent of recent degrees at four schools: Georgia Tech, Purdue, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and University of Wisconsin at Madison. Trends for those schools were flat in recent years.

Harvey Mudd College is now leading efforts to spread its recent success in recruiting women to C.S. Along with the Anita Borg Institute, Harvey Mudd president Maria Klawe leads the Building, Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID) initiative that aims to increase gender and racial diversity in C.S. at 15 universities.

The BRAID initiative provides participating universities with $30,000 per year over three years to support their efforts. In turn, these institutions provide data on what recruitment strategies work most effectively.

[What universities are participating in the BRAID initiative?]

In the long run, the initiative aims to identify effective strategies for increasing diversity at any C.S. program in the nation. At Harvey Mudd, promising strategies included emphasizing the societal relevance of computing in introductory courses, making those courses less intimidating, and providing networking and undergraduate research opportunities.

Ranking of Elite C.S. Programs By Gender Diversity

(Click header labels to resort)

NOTE: This list of elite programs was based on U.S. News and World Report's 2014 ranking of computer science programs. Princeton was a top 25 school, but IPEDS did not have specific data for its computer science program. U.S. News' list excludes, by definition, liberals art colleges such as Harvey Mudd College. If included, Harvey Mudd would top this list at 37.0% women.