Engineering Gender Balance: For the first time, women outnumber men in Harvey Mudd’s freshman class
Mudd and its peer institutions have always struggled to attract well-qualified women, who are often underrepresented in math and science-related fields. Until the early 1990s, women rarely constituted over 20% of a given class. Former President Jon C. Strauss (1997–2006) sought to rectify the gender imbalance by hiring female faculty members and recruiting female applicants, even subsidizing their flights to visit campus once admitted. As an underrepresented group, women also received preference (along with minorities and low-income males) in the awarding of merit scholarships. At the end of Strauss’s tenure, female representation had reached 30%.
Under President Maria Klawe (2006–present), Mudd has continued this commitment. Mudd’s percentage of female professors (35%) is now much higher than that of its peer institutions, which hover around 10-15%. Yet until this year’s breakthrough, Mudd continued to enroll classes of over 30% women; few exceeded 40%. For Klawe, who has made it a focus of her administration to enroll more females and minorities, this year’s freshman class is an achievement.
Mudd encourages its female students to pursue traditionally male-dominated fields. By altering the lesson plans of introductory classes to include more problem solving, application, and group work as opposed to just theory, Mudd has seen fields such as computer science and engineering gain popularity among its female students. In recent years, many have received the opportunity to attend the prestigious Grace Hopper Conference, which celebrates women in computing.
While Klawe thinks the influx of women has made the community more “warm and engaged,” she also admits a significant negative reaction. When she announced the statistics at Alumni Weekend, many alumni were shocked; some worried that their school’s character was changing. Some faculty members questioned admissions standards, wondering whether affirmative action had gone too far. Others have accused the school of lowering core academic requirements in order to enroll less qualified students.
Director of Admission Peter Osgood adamantly denies that admissions standards were lowered for female applicants. Women who apply to Mudd are “typically more self-selecting than their male counterparts,” he said, commenting on their higher acceptance rate. Women also tend to have a much lower yield rate than males because they face better offers from competing schools.
So what accounts for this switch in the gender ratio? Osgood attributes the change to admission policies that have been in place for years. With the help of unique factors, past recruitment and commitment strategies simply worked better this year than he ever thought possible. The reason for the discrepancy between the class of 2014 and previous classes is that more accepted women actually committed.
Osgood thinks that Mudd’s reputation and name recognition may be improving among highly qualified female students, making it more on par with MIT and Caltech. Another factor may be Massachusetts’s Olin College of Engineering’s decision to charge tuition. “Around 10 to 20 women, who in past years may have decided to go there, may have decided instead to attend Mudd,” he said. The ills of the University of California system may also play a role. While these factors may seem insignificant, gender ratio switches can occur much more easily at schools like Mudd, which has a mere 756 students this year.
Given the school’s size, the influx of women has had a large impact. Current students, particularly Proctors (Mudd’s version of Resident Assistants), were charged with addressing gender issues on campus. Through these measures, the administration sought to engage the women in the freshmen class and to assure them that they truly belong at Mudd.
Mudd students’ reactions have been mixed but mostly positive; the prevailing emotions still seem to be shock and confusion. One disappointed sophomore male Mudder, who wished to remain anonymous, wondered, “With all the new women on campus, where are all of the attractive ones?”
Other students were more serious. “I think the sudden shift was definitely questionable,” senior Georgi Dinolov said, “but based on factors [such as Olin and other yield issues], it was probably reasonable.” While he saw it as “shocking at first,” he now thinks “it makes some sense.”
Freshman Tyler Robinson “has no problem with [the gender ratio].” Knowing nothing different from his class’s makeup, the concept of gender balance seems to be normal.
But not everybody is sure that the gender ratio is such a good thing. Sophomore Kevin O’Neill agrees that “the lack of women in math and science is a serious societal problem,” but wonders whether admission officers should fix the problem at such a late stage or whether parents and elementary school teachers should prevent it from occurring at all. O’Neill says that the rapid gender ratio switch logically brings into question whether Mudd should be trying to focus on “equal opportunity or equal results.”
For female Mudders who have in the past felt like outsiders in a boy’s club, the arrival of more women is mostly viewed positively. Sophomore Kate Crawford thinks that the new gender ratio will “force Mudd men to interact with women and learn how to deal with social situations they will encounter in the outside world.” The more balanced student body will help all Mudders develop “social skills that will in the long run be more important than any technical skills learned in the classroom.” Yet she and many other female Mudd students view the claims of lowered standards as offensive.
Regardless of whether or not the gender ratio shift came too quickly or by questionable methods, the overall feeling on campus still seems to be positive. The fact that there were enough qualified female applicants to create the gender ratio shift is a sign of progress. As Klawe said, “This year’s freshman class shows that if you are consistent in changing a culture that discourages women from entering our fields, it works.”