It’s not every day one gets recognized in the company of Pope Francis, the Dali Lama, and Bill Clinton. But for Maria Klawe (’73 BSc, ’77 PhD), being named to the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune magazine has placed her exactly there.
Klawe, the first female President of Harvey Mudd College since its founding in 1955, is a dedicated champion for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics over the last 20 years.
“I chose my day job to further my life goal,” she says from the Mudd campus in Clarmont, CA, “which is to make the culture of science and engineering supportive of everyone—whether they are members of the dominant group or not. It can be hard to change that without being a member of that community, and becoming first a mathematician, then adding computer science and my leadership roles in the academic community has really allowed me to push that agenda.”
Today she has developed a national voice in the US and is often asked to weigh in on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. She serves on the boards of Microsoft and Math for America, was past chair of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, and makes regular trips to the Whitehouse for events like the White House Summit on College Opportunity led by President Obama.
And Klawe is making progress. Since her tenure at Harvey Mudd, women now make up 40 per cent of computer science majors at the college—up from 10 per cent in 2005.
A recent report by PayScale, an online company that tracks and reports salary and compensation data, put Harvey Mudd College at the top of its most lucrative degrees in America—predicting graduates for the next 20 years will have an annual ROI of 12.6 per cent and a 20-year net ROI of $1,094,000.
But there was a time when Klawe wasn’t sure where her future would take her. During her third year of her honors mathematics degree she decided to leave her program and travel to India. “At the time I believed I wasn’t going to change the world with math,” she reflects, “but I also realized I couldn’t live without it. I did things like play chess every day, even though I didn’t like chess—I was looking for mathematical engagement at every turn, and that’s when I knew I needed math engagement as part of my life.”
Klawe made up her mind she wanted to return to the U of A, and while the math department wouldn’t let her go directly into a PhD program, they did let her finish her undergrad in one year and also let her take courses that would count towards her graduate degree.
“For the first time math wasn’t easy,” she says. “I had to work for it and it mattered more to me. There was a lot of caring and encouragement from the math department that was phenomenally important to me.”
Klawe tries to instill that same sense of caring and encouragement to her students.
“I will often tell them you learn more from failure than you do from success,” she says. “Putting yourself in a situation where it is generally difficult and you might partially, or entirely, fail is a good thing.”
And she is not afraid to take her own advice. Klawe had students teach her how to longboard and ballroom dance, demonstrating to them you can keep learning regardless of age. She also recognizes that today’s students are much more concerned about careers.
“I’m a member of the ’60s and we really thought we were going to change the world—thoughts of a career were irrelevant,” she says. “I was recently counseling a third year comp sci student who knows he should go to grad school but hasn’t figured out what area to focus on. I had to tell him I had no idea at his age what I was going to do and if I had I probably would have been wrong.”
Today Klawe is focused on leading Mudd’s $150 million comprehensive campaign, the largest in the College’s history. She has enlisted the help of people like Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, as a PR agent for the College.
“Whenever she talks about technology she mentions Harvey Mudd,” says Klawe. “No one is going to copy us if they don’t know we exist.”
Klawe continues to be an effective catalyst for getting institutions to really address issues around women in science and engineering, proving that you can change the world with math.