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Engineering a Balance

As enrollment at SEAS rises, so does concern about its persistent gender gap

By Theodore R. Delwiche and Alexander H. Patel, Crimson Staff Writers

As a first-year student aspiring to study computer science, Anne W. Madoff ’15 felt at times that she had the weight of her gender on her shoulders.

“At most, you would see 30 percent women in an [engineering] classroom, often less—you could be in a section where you were the only girl,” Madoff said. “I would feel tremendously scared to ask a question, because I would think if I asked a stupid question, I would make girls look bad.”

Madoff said that she has since overcome that fear, one that she said commonly weighs on female undergraduates studying engineering, computer science, and related technical fields at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where two-thirds of all concentrators are male—a ratio that has stayed constant even as the school has doubled in size since 2009.

According to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67, this lopsided ratio among those interested in science and engineering fields accounts for a portion of the growing gender gap among the students admitted to Harvard. 55 percent of students admitted to the College this April were male, meaning that nearly 200 more men than women may graduate with a College degree in 2018.

Amid ongoing efforts by administrators and students to decrease the size and effects of the gender gap in SEAS classrooms, questions remain regarding Harvard’s ability to address the gender disparity in its fastest-growing school.


As the University allocates substantial resources to SEAS, skewed gender ratios have persisted within the school’s student body, a trend that is highlighted by SEAS’s remarkable growth and reflected in the mass of students applying to Harvard.

With SEAS slated to receive $450 million out of the University’s total $6.5 billion goal in its recently launched capital campaign and projects already underway to expand the school’s facilities into Allston, many have hailed SEAS as a new front for Harvard's liberal arts education.

But compared to other fields of study at the College, the gender imbalance in SEAS concentrations is particularly large. In the last five years, the number of female concentrators in SEAS has ranged from 31 to 34 percent, with statistics of the 2011-2012 concentrator breakdown suggesting that the percentage is even lower in computer science and the branch of engineering sciences that awards S.B., rather than A.B., degrees.

This 2-to-1 ratio of males to females has persisted during rapid growth of SEAS in recent years. Since 2009, the school has experienced a 137 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment, according to data provided by SEAS’s executive director of communications Paul Karoff.

The growing ability of SEAS to attract and retain students already at Harvard—as demonstrated by escalating enrollments in classes like Computer Science 50 and Engineering Sciences 50—can account, in part, for this growth in enrollment. But the rise also stems from increased interest in engineering, technology, and related fields among students applying to college. This year, the Admissions Office saw a 60 percent increase in applicants who said that they were interested in studying computer science, said Fitzsimmons.

Rising application rates from these students can produce gender imbalances in applicant pools, as demonstrated by the 10 percent gap in male and female students in the College’s incoming class. This proportion mirrors admissions trends at schools with the nation’s premier engineering programs. The class set to graduate in 2017 at Stanford and MIT is 53 percent male and 55 percent male, respectively. At the California Institute of Technology, the class of 2017 is 62 percent male.

These imbalances, however, defy general trends in higher education, in which women have represented the majority of college students in the United States since 1979, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2012, the agency reported that women constituted 56.8 percent of the nation’s college students.


SEAS community members across its hierarchy have raised concerns about the lopsided gender ratio at SEAS and its impact on classroom dynamics and the ability of the school to draw talent across the student body.

SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray said that she believes that the gender gap is hindering both the school and the fields of science and engineering more broadly.

“We need the best minds, and a lot of those minds are not choosing the hard sciences and SEAS,” Murray said in an interview in April.

"There is a sort of pressure on me not to make mistakes," Ida B. Hempell '14 said.

With far fewer women than men in the SEAS faculty as well as in its student body, Murray said SEAS is extending job offers to a greater number of potential faculty members who are women. Her goal for faculty recruitment is to be “fifty-fifty,” although she noted that its achievement will “take a while.” Ultimately, she added, the goal is to attract and recruit students who would otherwise concentrate in a non-STEM field.

Meanwhile, students in engineering and applied science concentrations point to problems in the classroom that result from the gender gap.

Ida B. Hempell ’14, a concentrator in applied mathematics, said that she has often worked on projects in which she is the only female in the group.

“There is a sort of pressure on me not to make mistakes, and if I were to make one or two lapses, I would not be taken as seriously,” she said.

Hempell added that the lopsided ratio of males and females at SEAS can deter female students from enrolling in the school, where she said they may not feel “ as welcome.”

Similarly, Anna Papp ’15, an engineering concentrator, said that she is sometimes self-conscious about group projects, which are increasingly prominent at SEAS.

“I’ve been concerned that maybe guys would not want to work with me,” Papp said, adding that despite her concerns, she has not encountered that problem.

Julie R. Macdonell ’14, a computer science concentrator, said that the male skew in SEAS can reaffirm stereotypes and, at times, isolate female students.

“There is definitely this ‘brogrammer’ culture as you move up in the CS Department,” Macdonell wrote in an email, noting that most of her close friends study the humanities or social sciences. “I’m not making any sort of judgment on that culture, but I do think it makes it more difficult to find your niche as a female CS concentrator.”

She wrote that the gender gap is most noticeable in advanced classes such as Computer Science 124, a course on data structures and algorithms. When she attended office hours for the class, all other students at the session, as well as the teaching fellow, were male.

“It’s not a threatening feeling by any means, but I can definitely say that I feel a lot more comfortable working on problem sets with women and getting help from female TFs,” she wrote.  “The TFs I have had who are women tend to have more encouraging and nurturing demeanors.”

Macdonell said that “different behavioral patterns” between male and female students during office hours, with male students sometimes pursuing answers to their questions more aggressively than females, call for changes to classes, sections, and office hours.

Other students, however, said that the gender disparity does not impede their interest nor pursuit of an engineering degree.

Meisha B. Brooks ’14, who concentrates in mechanical engineering, said that she does not believe that gender diversity in SEAS is a concern that warrants administrative action, and that her interest in engineering was not hindered by the school’s gender imbalance.

“I definitely do not think it needs to be addressed,” she said.

Madoff, who co-founded Harvard Women in Computer Science, an organization that promotes awareness about and opportunities for women in technical fields, said that despite her initial concerns, her experience as a computer-science concentrator has been “extraordinarily positive.”


Across SEAS, administrators, faculty, and students have worked to address the persistence and impact of the school’s gender gap, though the success of these efforts is difficult to measure.

Murray attributes part of the gender imbalance, along with disproportionately low representation of students of some racial minorities within SEAS, to variation in students’ academic backgrounds. According to Murray, even if an undergraduate starts at the introductory course Math 1a, the student can still succeed in one of the school’s engineering concentrations, a possibility that she said may not exist at other engineering schools.

“If you don’t happen to have a good math background, which is often what happens to women and underrepresented minorities more so than, let’s just say, white males, then you have a disadvantage for starting in engineering,” she said. “I want to make that disadvantage go away.”

Computer Science professor and former Harvard College Dean Harry R. Lewis ’68 said he would like women to continue to become more integrated in computer science and that he has been supportive of efforts to do so, such as by working with WICS.

According to Madoff, several faculty members in computer science—the largest concentration in SEAS—recruit female teaching fellows for their course staffs. In turn, the increased presence of women in technical fields can help encourage other women to join, said Amy M. Yin ’14, a computer science concentrator who co-founded WICS with Madoff.

“I think in general increased visibility of women in computer science has been a positive,” Yin said. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

On the student level, WICS works to reach out to female admitted students interested in SEAS, provides mentoring and support for female concentrators, and holds conferences, such as the recently launched WEcode, a set of workshops and speeches from prominent female leaders in technology like Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl K. Sandberg ’91.

"Increased visibility of women in computer science has been a positive. If you can't see it, you can't be it." Amy M. Yin '14 said.

Macdonell praised the organization’s efforts. In reference to the distribution of nail polish favors to female students at WEcode, which attracted media attention and claims of sexism, she wrote that the favors helped to reaffirm that “you can be a woman, you can be feminine, and there is a place for you in the tech world where you can keep that identity.”

Still, it is difficult to measure the success of efforts to attract female concentrators, particularly as SEAS has rapidly grown. Most evidence of these initiatives’ effects is anecdotal, Madoff said.

Moreover, some students question the efficacy of efforts to recruit female concentrators. Hempel said that the school’s attempts to target admitted female students who have already expressed an interest in engineering does not address the deeper problem of increasing the number of women interested in the field in the first place.

Vladimir Bok ’14, a computer science concentrator, said that he prefers student initiatives over administrative attempts to address the gender gap.

“I do recognize it as a problem,” he said.”But I am always having a hard time [with] any centralized effort to engineer something to happen. I am a much bigger fan of the grassroots efforts, such as [WICS].”

In fact, Harvard’s 1:2 ratio of female to male concentrators is actually above the national average. According to a 2009 report from the National Science Foundation, women represented only 18 percent of students enrolled in engineering programs.

“It’s really a testament to how hard the SEAS faculty, administration, and students have been working—really, before this was a hot topic—to be make the department welcoming to and accepting towards women,” Madoff said.

—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at Follow him on twitter @trdelwic.

—Staff writer Alexander H. Patel can be reached at Follow him on twitter @alexhpatel.

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