Can Women’s Colleges Create the Tech Role Models We Need?

Wellesley College ranked first on the best professors list.
Wellesley College is one of the all-women’s colleges in Massachusetts. –Bill Polo/ The Boston Globe

Boston, with its booming tech scene and surrounding collection of women’s colleges, seems to have all the tools necessary to inject a steady stream of female computer scientists into the workforce. It’s a stream that has been reduced to a trickle around the country.

The National Center for Women & Information Technology reported that although 57 percent of undergraduate degrees in 2012 went to women, only 18 percent of computer and information sciences graduates were women.

“Computer Science isn’t male dominated,’’ said Stacie Hagenbaugh, director of career development at Smith College, which is in Northampton. “It’s male dominated with a capital D.’’

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Tech companies themselves are often hungry for more female applicants.

“Over the past few years, we’ve significantly increased our diversity hiring efforts, including working more closely with women’s colleges,’’ Sidnie Davis, a 2008 Smith alumna who is now the women’s outreach specialist at Google on the University Programs Team, said in an email. “At the heart of those recruiting efforts is our belief that having a more diverse workforce helps us build better products.’’

But women’s schools – like Smith, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Wellesley College in Wellesley, and Simmons College in Boston – are finding there’s more at play here than a lack of opportunity. The trouble is often getting women interested in a career that can seem so overwhelmingly male.

Doug Eisenhart, associate director of employer relations at Simmons College, said he often has more recruiters offering positions than he does students interested in jobs.

“To watch the market come back up is gratifying and to see the demand in technical areas,’’ he said. “It would be nice to be able to provide more candidates to fill positions.’’

What Barriers Still Exist?

A 2010 American Association of University Women (AAUW) report titled “Why So Few?’’ said:

“Many young women graduate from high school with the skills needed to succeed in majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, yet college-bound women are less likely than men to pursue majors in these fields (National Science Board, 2010). The culture of academic departments in colleges and universities has been identified as a critical issue for women’s success in earning college degrees in STEM fields (National Academy of Sciences, 2007).’’

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The report mentioned that expectations for what a computer science major is supposed to look like, the male-dominated environment that already exists, and the focus on what computer scientists actually do, are all contributing factors that could deter women.

Catherine Hill, vice president for research at the AAUW, said the foundations of these barriers are built well before college.

“Young women and girls are 56 percent of all Advance Placement test takers,’’ Hill said about high school students who take the AP tests.

But she said the numbers are less encouraging in science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) fields, and especially those most related to a career in tech.

“Forty-seven percent of AP Chemistry, 43 percent of AP Calculus AB, 27 percent of Physics C, and 20 percent of Computer Science,’’ Hill said. “Tech is lagging much more than science.’’

The AAUW says many of the factors preventing women from entering those fields are cultural in nature, such as beliefs about intelligence, stereotypes, a variety of biases, and college experiences.

How Women’s Colleges Are Working To Overcome These Barriers

Women’s colleges are well aware of the struggle they’re in but that is not stopping them from trying to change the culture.

Mount Holyoke College

“I do think that women’s colleges have a unique opportunity in the classrooms,’’ Audrey St. John, an associate professor of computer science at Mount Holyoke College, and a Wellesley College alumna, said.

St. John mentioned that, like many women, she did not go into college knowing she wanted to be a computer science major, but took the intro course to see what it was like. She realized it was of interest to her and kept with it.

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Mount Holyoke has been making reforms with the aim of producing more stories like St. John’s. The school has made the intro to computer science class more rigorous and has tried to focus more on helping students understand what computer scientists can actually do in the real world, St. John said.

“The field is actually about problem solving,’’ she said.

St. John said at Mount Holyoke, they have a class where students create an interactive exhibition, which is displayed in a hallway on campus to raise awareness about the program. The computer science student club also hosts events, like a hackathon in the fall, the most recent of which attracted 150 people.

Wellesley College

According to Ellen Hildreth, professor of computer science at Wellesley College, any barriers based on gender become nearly eliminated in a classroom of like-minded women, and that can really help student’s emergence to the real world – where men are in the majority.

“[The students] grow up in an environment where women are playing leadership roles and are being very engaged in all aspects,’’ Hildreth said regarding the importance of all-female learning environments. “They grow to expect that it helps with that transition, even with a largely male environment. They have developed a confidence that helps them deal with that environment.’’

Wellesley, according to Hildreth, offers many intro courses for non-majors that appeal to students across a variety of disciplines.

“One of the things that happens,’’ she said, “is some students will take it for non-majors and realize they love what they are doing and decide to minor or major in computer science.’’

She also said Wellesley’s proximity to Boston, given the up-and-coming tech scene in the area, makes it easy for students to get summer internships, which often lead to jobs.

Smith College

At Smith College, Hagenbaugh said that they are using a variety of strategies to get first years interested in taking computer science classes, even if they are non-majors. She also said that because of the school’s proximity to Boston, it is easy to bring recruiters to talk with students.

“You are surrounded by women that are programmers,’’ Hagenbaugh said about women at Smith. “So there is no doubt in your mind that women do this. Women do tech, that is a really critical mindset to go into a male dominated field.’’

Smith hosted a lecture series about women in STEM that was aimed to address the reasons why there are so few women in this discipline, Hagenbaugh said.

She also said that “creating informal environments,’’ such as recruiters doing weekend sessions on coding, has been a very positive way to get more women involved.

Simmons College

Eisenhart said that Simmons has a computer science connection with the on-campus communication department to have a joint major on web development, which tends to attract more students.

He said that Simmons students have gone to work at Google, TripAdvisor, HubSpot, and a variety of startups.

“We know that women are in demand in these fields,’’ Eisenhart said.

For Simmons, it is important to demonstrate where graduates go after graduation to attract more students.

Things are Changing – Mostly For the Better

The all-women colleges in Massachusetts have different, but similar, strategies to getting the word out about computer science – many of which have resulted in higher enrollment numbers.

“Any college can have a good environment for women and a welcoming environment for women,’’ Hill from AAUW said. “But women’s colleges do have a special role in that women are welcomed into all courses.’’

And the efforts these women’s colleges have been putting in have been attracting more students.

In 2008, Mount Holyoke had two computer science majors, now they have over 65 declared majors out of the about 2,000 students on campus and most of their CS courses have a waitlist, St. John said.

Smith had 36 computer science majors in the fall of 2014 and Wellesley had 40 in the junior class alone. The numbers have been increasing every year, according to officials there.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020 there will be over a million new computer, mathematical, architecture, and engineering jobs in the United States.

Simmons still only has a handful of computer science majors each year.

“I would love to see it grow,’’ Eisenhart said.

Megan Turchi is a graduate of Wellesley College.

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