The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carnegie Mellon pushes for more women in engineering and computer science

The Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

PITTSBURGH — The dean of computer science here at Carnegie Mellon University, a fervent advocate for recruiting more women into the field, recalls with chagrin an episode when he might have unwittingly turned some girls off of pursuing a technology career.

It happened when Andrew Moore, the dean, was working for Google as director of its Pittsburgh engineering office. The office sat next to some railroad tracks. When a train passed, it was the custom for everyone to drop what they were doing and have a Nerf-gun battle to blow off steam. The boss encouraged it. “A little silly tradition,” Moore said.

One day some middle school girls trooped through Moore’s office. They spied the Nerf weaponry lying around. “This feels like a boy’s kind of place,” one of them remarked. Moore was stricken. He resolved from then on that he would be more alert in the future to anything that might be a potential turnoff for girls interested in his field.

At Carnegie Mellon, Moore heads one of the most prestigious computer science programs in the country. It’s a school with a “little brag book” that spells out the university’s connections to a pioneering robotics institute, a professor who developed the “Captcha” technology to deter online identity thieves and a graduate known as “the father of Java,” the programming language. Also, apparently, a Carnegie Mellon research professor on Sept. 19, 1982, was the first to use the “smiley face” sequence :-) in an email.

Women break barriers in engineering and computer science at some top colleges

This fall, 48 percent of incoming computer science students at Carnegie Mellon are women, a record for the school. That is one example among many of advances that women are making in computer science and engineering at prominent schools throughout the country, a movement explored in a Washington Post report published Friday.

Moore said drawing more women into these fields is not only a moral obligation but also a practical one: Computer science and engineering rely heavily on teamwork to develop solutions to problems. If the teams aren’t diverse, they’ll have blind spots that can dampen the power of the brainstorming that is essential to the work.

“In the middle of the last century, you could have lone geniuses come up with big ideas,” Moore said. “Nowadays, you have to have teams of people. Those teams cannot be eight copies of the same person.”

Carnegie Mellon’s president, Subra Suresh, said the private university has “a long way to go” in its push for diversity.

Overall, the numbers show that women account for 46 percent of Carnegie Mellon’s 6,000 undergraduates and nearly 50 percent of the freshman class. As recently as 2013, women accounted for 32 percent of first-year engineering students and 35 percent of first-year computer science students. Now their shares are 43 and 48 percent, respectively.

Suresh, president since 2013, was previously director of the National Science Foundation. He worked with the Obama administration on initiatives to promote women in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. Change can’t happen by fiat from a top executive, he said. It takes awareness on the part of deans, faculty and staff members, and others.

“Everybody has to own it,” Suresh said. “Otherwise, we’re not going to move the needle. … We as a country can do much better.”

He said the push for women in computer science, engineering and other STEM fields is urgent. “These are at the core of where the 21st-century world is going,” Suresh said. The issue is personal for him. “I have a wife, sister and two daughters” — both of whom earned degrees in STEM disciplines, he said. “My life and my future depend entirely on women.”

Alina Rath, 21, a senior in electrical and computer engineering, is a leader in a group that promotes women in the field. Rath said it has dozens of participants. About 27 percent of students in Rath’s major are women, the university said. But the numbers in the department and in other engineering disciplines are growing.

“We’re witnessing change,” Rath said. “Everyone’s goal, including mine, would be to strive for 50-50.” Rath said she and others last year posted pictures on social media using a hashtag that had gone viral: #ilooklikeanengineer. It was part of a movement of women in industry and academia to upend gender stereotypes.

Sara Misra, 18, another electrical and computer engineering student here, said she occasionally encounters skepticism “and a little bit of awe” from people who learn what she is studying. ” ‘Oh, my God, you’re doing engineering?’ ” she said some will ask her, assuming that she was bound to study humanities or arts. Misra brushes it off. “I’ve learned not to let my gender influence decisions,” she said.

Computer science, a relatively young field, was not always as lopsided in favor of men. In the 1970s and early ’80s women had a solid share of the degrees in the field, though not a majority, experts say. But the share of women in computer science declined in ensuing years and has only recently started to climb back up. Nationally, about 16 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees go to women, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data and other sources.

“We still have that idea out there in the broader culture that this is a boy’s field,” said Carol Frieze, who directs an outreach program for women in computer science at Carnegie Mellon. “And challenging that is a huge issue.” The school began an intensive effort to support women in the field in 1999, she said, and has continued ever since. There are “big sister” mentoring programs, recruiting trips to high schools and a variety of other efforts to ensure that women are included at all levels.

What the university says it is not doing is relaxing admission standards or the curriculum. Women come into Carnegie Mellon with equal or better qualifications than men, officials say, and they complete the same rigorous coursework.

James H. Garrett, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon, said the school wants to bust stereotypes. “We all look like engineers,” he said. “There is no one person that is the epitome of an engineer.”