June 27, 2011

Worried About Jobs, College Women Go 'Geek'

Ilana Greene  /  The Christian Science Monitor - CSMonitor.com

A rising share of computer science majors at top schools are women. High-tech jobs offer stability in an uncertain economy.

Cambridge, Mass.
A year ago, Harvard University's student newspaper dubbed computer science the most "gender-skewed" major on campus – meaning that many more men majored in computer science than women. Then something happened. In a year, the number of women majoring in computer science has nearly doubled on the Harvard campus.

"Computer science seems like a lot of fun, but it also proves to be a lifesaver," says Katrina Wong, a Harvard literature major who is considering switching to computer science. Since her father lost his job to the recession and she maxed out her credit cards, she's begun writing content for smart-phone apps that her college friends are creating for clients. "It's not a big income, but it buys me necessities as well as opens doors to profit-sharing opportunities."

The financial turmoil of the last few years has made it tougher for college graduates to find jobs. So women at several elite schools are turning to computer science – a field that they used to spurn – in hopes of landing secure employment opportunities after graduation. Their numbers are still small, but the influx of women into computer science programs may change the geeky male-dominated major into something far more cool.

"Men still seem to occupy the technology space," says Henry Chen, managing director of POM Partners, a New York-based digital-media advisory and consulting firm. But "compared with 10 years ago, we are slowly seeing more women enter the space."

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The change is evident at some – but not all – of the top computer science programs in the United States. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, down the street from Harvard here in Cambridge, the number of female computer science majors has jumped 28 percent in the past three years. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the share of computer science majors who are women has moved from 1 in 5 in 2007 to 1 in 4 last year.

But the biggest change appears to be at Harvard. In the 2009-10 academic year, 13 percent of computer science majors were women, prompting the most "gender-skewed" moniker from the student-run Harvard Crimson. In the 2010-11 academic year, which just came to a close, 25 percent of computer science majors were women.

"The big uptick is in sophomores who have mostly just taken our intro course," says Harry Lewis, director of Harvard's undergraduate computer science program. "The challenge will be whether we will hold onto them."

Why the sudden interest in computer science at Harvard?

"That's where the money is," says Yiwei Zhao, a Harvard junior with a minor in computer science. Many women are hoping to find a job in finance or investment banking after graduation.

There's some logic to that. Demand for technology positions tends to stay fairly consistent, even during recessions, according to career consultant Laurence Shatkin in his 2009 book "150 Best Recession-Proof Jobs."

Another important catalyst driving women into the field of computer science is the concerted effort made by many schools to encourage women to do so. At the University of California, Berkeley, the director of diversity in the department of electrical engineering and computer science is spearheading a drive to get women into the field. The University of Texas hosts a free one-week camp for 60 high school girls called First Bytes.

Despite these efforts, not all top computer science schools are reporting growth. The University of Washington in Seattle, for example, conducts outreach programs to encourage undergraduate women to major in computer science. And the percentage of women majoring in computer science is relatively high – about 23 percent, according to Hank Levy, the chairman of the computer science and engineering department. But, he says, "we've been at this level for some time."

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., also reports no change in the number of women who have declared computer science as their major. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reports that the number of women pursuing computer science has been steadily decreasing.

As the pool of female computer science majors grows, one result may be that they encourage others to sign up. That's what's happening with Ms. Wong at Harvard. Two of her friends, both computer science majors, are urging her to switch. "They just thrive on problem solving," Wong says.

Given the state of the economy, it's a message that a growing number of college women may tune in to.