Working to Bring Diversity to Tech is a ‘Trek for a Lifetime’

EdSurge Podcast

Working to Bring Diversity to Tech is a ‘Trek for a Lifetime’

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 19, 2019

Working to Bring Diversity to Tech is a ‘Trek for a Lifetime’

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

Harvey Mudd College is known as a powerhouse in engineering and computer science—but like those fields, it has struggled historically with recruiting diverse staff and students.

Maria Klawe became the first woman president for the college in 2006, and she’s made it one of her missions to change that trend. That has meant working to do things like make introductory computer-science classes more welcoming to all. But for Klawe, it has also meant making herself more approachable, by doing things that aren’t very presidential, like clumsily riding a skateboard across campus, with plenty of padding.

Klawe is also taking her mission outside of the college, by helping efforts that encourage girls to code long before they’re old enough for higher education.

Her work has been hailed as a success story. Back when she started at the college, about 30 percent of students and faculty were female. Today about 45 percent of them are.

But she isn’t declaring victory. In fact, she is the first to say she hasn’t done enough to make sure computer science is welcoming to all groups, including people of color. And when college trustees ask her when she thinks the work will be done, she has a surprising answer.

EdSurge recently sat down with Klawe after she had given a talk at MIT about her work in encouraging diversity in tech. Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: There are rising concerns about Big Tech and its impact on society. Are you surprised by the shift in the national conversation around tech, and the deep concerns people have about where algorithms are taking us?

Klawe: I've been talking about this over the last 20 years. One of the things I've said all along is the reason we need diverse people in technology is because when you have people coming to technology who have the same kind of background and framework, they don't ask the hard questions. And what we're seeing right now, in all kinds of different ways, is that when you don't have people challenging groupthink, you can make a lot of mistakes. So I think we're in a place right now for us where we are recognizing that there are lots of questions we have not asked in the past that need to be asked now. And we're recognizing that by having more diverse people go into technical careers, we're more likely to get better answers.

The other thing that has changed enormously in the last couple of years is the #MeToo movement. There's now a lot of behavior that was pretty much taken for granted, where, essentially women and also people of color as well, were treated in ways that are completely inappropriate. These are not the same issues, but they're related. We're recognizing that we need to think about a variety of ethical issues in different kinds of ways—about the impact of power, about who gets to make what decisions. And I think that's a really good thing.

In the talk you just gave, you mentioned that when you were growing up as a girl, people said to you, ‘girls don't do math.’ How far have we come from that? And where do you see the most need of intervention?

I think culturally things vary enormously in different parts of the United States. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, my daughter went down to work with the Red Cross. She was having a semester off from college and she went down to volunteer. When she came back, she said, ‘Mom, why didn't you tell me how sexist things were? I grew up thinking that women and men, young women and men got exactly the same opportunities.’

It just was stunning for her, how different the culture was. And you know, she grew up in Vancouver and then moved to the U.S. for her college education. She had never encountered this. And, I'm just talking within one country. From country to country there are huge differences in how women are treated, how gay people are treated, how all of these kinds of things. So we have a long way to go.

In intro classes at Harvey Mudd, you’ve created different sections with different difficulty levels, depending on how well people are prepared. It sounds like you’re finding that our K-12 system gives very uneven preparation to students, even those who can get into a highly-selective place like Harvey Mudd.

They're incredibly unequal. I'm involved in several initiatives to try and improve things in the K-12 level. I founded Math for America in LA, which focuses on professional development for math teachers. And it's been very successful.

The disparity between the best public schools in the U.S. and the average public school is just horrendous. In Los Angeles, the average student starting eighth or ninth grade has a third-grade reading level and the third-grade math level. And what makes it really incredibly complicated if you're trying to teach them, is that the things they're missing from an eighth grade or ninth grade level is different for every child.

When we admit students to Mudd we look for a student who might be the top student from their high school who has taken every advanced math, English and science course they could lay their hands on. And then we have to recognize that we need to provide a lot more support for those students because there will be gaps. And so we have something called Academic Excellence, which is tutoring in all the core courses that's available five nights per week. And we've seen a 40 percent increase in the use of Academic Excellence in the last five years, which is really good.

Are there any other tips you can give other colleges, especially ones dealing with math and sciences, for how to be more inclusive in their pedagogy?

We often think of an introductory course as being a gateway course. The instructor will say something like, “This is a course where you really find out if you have what it takes to be a mathematician.” to weed out [students].

One of the things we encourage our instructors to say is, “This is a challenging course. You will have to work hard to do well in this course, and you'll need to ask for help. But those of you who work hard and get help are going to do just fine.” It's the expectations you're setting for the students. Are you saying, okay, this is a course where, look to your left, look to your right, one of you is not going to be here at the end of this course. Or you're saying, look to your left, look to your right, you're all going to be here but especially if you work hard, help each other and ask for help.

Can you tell our listeners about your adventures and skateboarding? Because I’ve read you learned to skateboard when you first came to Harvey Mudd.

So the first thing I should say is that's a really important prelude to this is, I am particularly uncoordinated. And I believe that one of the errors we make in our society is we tell people, “do what you're good at.”

I know what I'm good at, and I do like to do what I'm good at. I'm good at math, and I'm good at painting. I'm particularly bad at learning things that require coordination, but I've always seen people on skateboards and thought, oh, that'd be so cool to do. So after about three months at Mudd, I bought a skateboard, and I bought all possible pads you could. And I'm really bad. I mean, it took me four years to get to the point where students are after about two weeks. And students would come up and help me, and they would teach me different kinds of things. And one of the things I realized was that while I was out there, I really looked sort of like the Michelin Man or something like that. It's really funny. Really shy students would come up and talk to me in a way that they would never do if I wasn't on the skateboard.

Back to your work on diversity and inclusion. You've been at this so long, but you are saying that even at your college you still have a ways to go. Is that frustrating?

We have come so far in the last 12 years, and I would say we have gotten to the point where everybody takes it for granted that women are everywhere. They're faculty members, they're department chairs, they’re students in every discipline. It's a place where we still have a long ways to go is when you are an institution that was essentially white and male for its first 30 years. You have a ton of things that you're not even aware of that are going to be challenging for people who are not white and male. So a lot of those things have been addressed for women. I don't want to say it's all done, but we've made a lot of progress.

But we're in a society that has enormous amounts of racism, still. And so, for example, we have a black faculty member who is black, Muslim and Canadian. And so he'd never been stopped while driving a car in Canada. And I asked him when he'd been with us for about 18 months, how many times you've been stopped while you're driving? Seven. And he says, and it's terrifying because I have no idea what to do because I can't joke with the cop. I'm just, I don't know what to do.

Once my board chair asked, “This diversity inclusion thing, do we ever get there?” And I said, “absolutely not.” This is something that we're going to be working on forever because we have a history of things that are just hard for us to get past. We get up every day and we say we're not perfect, but we're working on it.

I think we just have to understand that we're on this trek. And there going to be easier parts of the trek and harder parts of the trek, but it's a trek for a lifetime. And it is a trek for more than lifetimes. And I look at that and I say, okay, it works. We can do this.

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