María Klawe on the role of women in STEM careers, in an interview for the Observatory

I’m very stubborn. If you tell me that I shouldn’t do something, that means I will do it for sure.
— Maria Klawe.

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, talked with the Observatory about the future of education and the role of women in careers that were believed to be only for men.

Read the full transcript of the interview:

Observatory: What challenges did you face when you were a student in a career that was only believed to be for men? And what inspired you to take action to fill the gap that exists in terms of gender in computer science and engineering?

Klawe: The first thing I should say is that the area that I actually studied in was mathematics, all the way up through my Ph.D. And then after I finished my Ph.D., I then went back to do a second Ph.D. in computer science. But when I was an undergraduate student in mathematics, there were very few women in math. And I would often get asked by my professors, "Why do you want to be a mathematician? There are no good women mathematicians." And what they were trying to say was not that I wasn't good at mathematics, because I was very good at mathematics, but that I was good in so many different areas and there would be less discrimination and fewer barriers in areas outside mathematics. And I'm one of those people, I'm very stubborn. If you tell me that I shouldn't do something, that means I will do it for sure.

Then when I went back to do my Ph.D. in computer science, I had no computer science knowledge at all. But I went directly into the graduate program, into graduate courses. And I think, again, partly that was just I had already gotten a Ph.D. and I felt like it should be possible to learn this other field quite quickly. And in fact, within maybe seven months, I was given an offer by one of the top computer science departments in the world to become a faculty member there. And I think part of being a woman in fields where women were not really encouraged, if you stick it out, it gives you more confidence. Because since people have already told you that these are not things that you can do, you can prove you can do all kinds of things.

Observatory: What do you currently do at Harvey Mudd to encourage women to participate in these knowledge areas?

Klawe: At Harvey Mudd, we work very hard to make sure that all students feel encouraged in all areas. And one of the things that happen is that students take the same courses for the first three semesters and they don't choose a major. And that gives us much more opportunity to have them see that physics or engineering or computer science could be very interesting to them even if they arrive thinking they were going to do biology or math or something else. I think the fact that they don't have to choose their major initially makes it much easier. And then we work very hard to make sure that their experiences in all of their courses are as supportive as possible. And we try to show them the applications, the reasons it's important for society that you study physics or engineering or computer science. So not just about the abstract theory, but about how it actually makes a difference in the world. And I think that is very attractive both to many young women, but also to many people of color.

Observatory: What will be the growth of liberal arts in the future of education and work?

Klawe: The way I think about liberal arts is, it's encouraging you to have exposure to a lot of different perspectives and fields of knowledge. And that by having that breadth of experience, it allows you to make connections from one field to another. And I think it also really encourages communication skills, people skills, teamwork, all of these things, the so-called “soft skills.” But things that actually are going to make you more successful in your life. And this combination of exposure to many different areas as well as a lot of depth and rigor in all of the areas. And then also emphasizing speaking, working with others, all of those kinds of things. I think that combination works extremely well.

Observatory: What kind of jobs or roles in society do you see future graduates will be doing?

Klawe: Our graduates do a lot of different things. I mean, we have graduates who go on to get PhDs and become faculty members, or go to law school and become patent lawyers, or become high school teachers and middle school teachers, or who go to work for big companies, go to work for startups. We have people who decide to go with the Peace Corps for some period of time. So there's just a very wide variety. So the majority of our people end up doing something involved science, engineering, and mathematics. But it can be applied in a very broad range of areas.

 Observatory: What will higher education look like in 2049?

Klawe: Oh, 2049. Oh, my goodness. Well, I will be 98 years old in 2049. I think what we will see is there will still be some institutions. For instance, Harvard and Princeton, who still do a lot of things the way they used to. Oxford and Cambridge as well. I mean, I think there will still be some very prestigious institutions that have not changed that much. Those tend to be institutions that also have a lot of wealth. And so they're less, it's harder to disrupt them. I think there will be many institutions that are using a broad variety of ways that their students can learn. And some of it will be online and some of it will be blended, some of it will be face to face. We will have, I think, a lot more teamwork that happens not face to face, but where people are collaborating on their team where they're across several different countries or different parts of the same country. I think we will see, as many people have said, that you keep on learning all the time.

One of the reasons I love my own career is over and over again, I have to learn new things. And one of the really big learning opportunities for me was going on corporate boards. And I was on the board of Microsoft and also of Broadcom for a number of years. And I had to learn completely different things about being on the board of a large public corporation. More recently, I got involved in starting a ratings agency to rating K to 12 Math and English Arts curriculum. And I had to learn completely different things about publishers and how state and school districts and all of these different kinds of things work.

I think that one of the things that will change between now and 2049, is that many more people will be learning throughout their career. And some of that learning will be informal, some of it will be formal, some of it will be mediated through various kinds of online learning platforms. Some of that will be going back to university, possibly in some kind of hybrid program. But I'm still pretty sure that there will be some version of universities, that those universities will have a very broad mix of how they actually do what they do and that the greater changes will be in, the least changes, will be in the oldest most successful universities because they will survive, simply because of the prestige of actually studying at one of those. And the most change will be a much broader range of platforms like Open Classrooms, or Coursera, or Udacity, 2U, other online learning things. And I think they will be, it'll be also much easier to take things you learned from one place and transfer the credentials to another place.