Increasing Women's Participation in Computing at Harvey Mudd College

Document Type



Computer Science (HMC)

Publication Date



The shortage of women and minorities in computer science (CS) is well documented. Data from CRA Taulbee surveys over the last decade indicate that women's representation in CS at the undergraduate level peaked in the mid-80s at around 37%, and has fallen and remained low since then, currently standing at around 14%. Although success stories exist, few colleges and universities are realizing substantial, sustained changes.

Harvey Mudd College (HMC), a small liberal-arts college with a focus on science and engineering, is an exception to this trend. Starting 7 years ago, HMC has increased the percentage of women students in the computer science major from an average near 12% to around 40%, where it has remained steady for the past four years. This percentage is close to the overall percentage of women at HMC, which has been a little over 40% in the same four-year period.

We achieved this growth through three pervasive, yet straightforward, changes to our program targeting first-year students, each addressing a common problem that prevents women (and many men) from pursuing computing-related majors. First, we replaced our traditional CS1 curriculum with a breadth-first approach that provides students with substantial programming experience in a variety of application areas and exposure to some of the major intellectual and societal contributions of our field. Second, we introduced summer research experiences that targeted rising sophomore women—without requiring background beyond CS1. We designed these research projects to deepen students' experience of the real problems that computer scientists work on and to help them gain confidence in their abilities to contribute meaningfully to those efforts. Third, we started taking a substantial number of first-year students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC). These trips exposed our students to the dynamism of the field and the energy and excitement of the community of women within it. All three changes target students well before they are required to declare their major at the end of their sophomore year.

This paper details these three changes in the hope that they might help broaden participation at other institutions. We describe the obstacles overcome and lessons learned, and we present specific results and recommendations for adapting them to different environments.

Rights Information

© 2012 Association for Computing Machinery