Talking leadership 21: Maria Klawe on sexism in tech

The president of Harvey Mudd College discusses smashing glass ceilings and how to get more women into STEM subjects 

April 14, 2022
Maria Klawe

In 2011, Maria Klawe had a 15-minute meeting booked with Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, to discuss encouraging more women into the male-dominated tech sector. They ended up speaking for 75 minutes and setting up an internship for first-year Harvey Mudd College students.

It was a decidedly different experience from when, while as a Microsoft board member between 2009 and 2015, she asked Bill Gates if he would organise a company retreat focused on diversity in STEM. “He said he wasn’t interested in diversity,” Klawe recounts – although she also credits him for participating in a retreat on the use of technology in K-12 maths education, and she found his then wife, Melinda, to be a passionate advocate for diversity. 

Neither Microsoft nor the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation responded to Times Higher Education’s invitation to comment.

Klawe, who is now president of Harvey Mudd, a private university in California, has been trying to loosen the grip of white men on tech for the best part of four decades. Making a sport of smashing glass ceilings – she was the first female dean of engineering at Princeton and the first female dean of science, then the first female vice-president at the University of British Columbia – the 71-year-old computer scientist has not so much sent down the ladder behind her as built a suite of elevators.

But she has been involved in more than her fair share of controversies along the way. Perhaps the most famous incident came at the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, the largest gathering of women in computer science. On stage, Klawe asked Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (pictured below, with Klawe) for his advice to women looking for a pay rise. 

Nadella replied: “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back because somebody’s going to know that’s the kind of person that I want to trust.”

Klawe immediately disagreed with him, and the footage went viral, leading to headlines across the world.

“He had the questions ahead of time; he just blew that answer,” Klawe tells Times Higher Education.

Nadella subsequently issued an apology and remains CEO to this day. Klawe, on the other hand, was sacked.

Despite this, she defends Nadella today, saying he meant that both men and women should not ask for pay rises. The reference to karma stemmed from his Indian heritage, she adds, and some good came of the incident. “He went back to Microsoft and he said to his senior team, ‘If I could screw up an answer that badly, probably others of us could as well, so we’re going to do a lot more diversity inclusion training.’”

It was Microsoft chair John Thompson who wanted Klawe gone, she says. “He thought I had embarrassed Microsoft.”

You might expect a woman with such a record to have a dominating personality, but while Klawe emits an air of quiet confidence, her remarks are measured. And she admits to having been shaken by the fallout of the Microsoft incident, describing the period as “terrible, absolutely horrible”.

“At the time, I didn’t talk about it, because I thought if I did talk about it, it would probably damage my chances of ever being asked to serve on another major company board. And I think it probably did that because I heard from lots of people in Silicon Valley that John Thompson talked about me as somebody who is outspoken and who was too challenging to have as a board member.”

Does she think Thompson’s behaviour was sexist? “I don’t know if I would say it was sexism,” she responds. “I think it would be more that they honestly didn’t like that I was so outspoken.” But then she pauses. “Well, could somebody else have been outspoken? I mean, there’s lots of people who are very outspoken. Elon Musk could be a good example.”

 Personnel from Google interact with visitors at a Career Expo to explain about Google recruitment

THE put Klawe’s allegations to the biotech firm Illumina, where Thompson is now chair, but no comment was received.

Despite such setbacks, Klawe has had huge success improving diversity in tech.

Having obtained a PhD in mathematics from the University of Alberta in 1977, Klawe switched to computer science to chase the booming jobs market. After several years in the computer science department at the University of Toronto, she moved into industry and spent most of the 1980s at IBM, then one of the global leaders in computing technology. There followed 14 years at the University of British Columbia, where she led the computer science department and worked her way up to vice-president, before leaving for Princeton.

Since she took the helm at Harvey Mudd in 2006, the science and engineering-focused college has seen marked improvements. While the average proportion of women on US computer science courses is about 21 per cent, at Harvey Mudd it has risen to half. In some years, it has been even higher. Harvey Mudd’s total proportion of female graduates has risen from 30 to 50 per cent under Klawe, and students of colour have grown from 30 to 70 per cent of the cohort.

One tactic Klawe has adopted is to require students to take courses in every possible major in their first 18 months, which means that many who were not planning to go into computer science get a taste for it. Moreover, the introductory course in computer science is run at various levels, based on levels of experience. “The ones who’ve had prior exposure tend to be male, and that tends to discourage the ones who have had no exposure, who tend to be female,” she says.

Setting up internships for the summer after a student’s first year, instead of after their second year, as was previously done, encourages them to take a second computer science course, Klawe says. “Google and Microsoft and Facebook and Intel all started early internship programmes at my urging. [Allowing students] to see how you can actually use the theoretical concepts they’ve learned in real work encourages this retention of women and people of colour.”

With regard to the latter group, Klawe says some parts of the tech sector have evolved better than others. And at large companies, certain departments are better places for people of colour to work than others. But Google, she says, has been particularly successful at identifying talented black students in their first year of study, providing them with summer internships and recruiting them after graduation. It is the start-ups that marginalised groups need to be particularly wary of, Klawe believes; their lack of HR functions mean that “if somebody’s not treating you well, there’s not a lot of recourse.”

Klawe has also employed some marketing tricks to help boost the diversity of Harvey Mudd’s student body: she updated all the college’s promotional photos to increase the number of women and people of colour. And she sent a handwritten card to every female student because evidence shows that women respond to personalised communication – although she concedes that writing them all was hard work: “I just would carry the stack of cards with me to every meeting I went to.”


Boosting diversity was not everyone’s idea of a worthwhile cause, however. She has described her first few years at Harvey Mudd as “pretty challenging” because some people on the board were not used to having an outspoken woman in the role.

In 2017, a report commissioned by the college’s Teaching and Learning Committee criticised the workload but also, more damagingly, reported that students had heard faculty express the notion they were not as good as past Harvey Mudd students because there were more women and ethnic minorities.

“There were definitely some faculty that said things like that,” Klawe admits. “There was at least one department whose chair, at least for several years, openly made comments like that.”

Students posted copies of the report all over a faculty building, and there was “a lot of hurt, both among the student body and the faculty. There were a lot of faculty in that department who didn’t agree with the small number of faculty, probably two or three, who said things like that,” Klawe says. “We had a lot of healing to do.”

If she was fazed at the time, she hides it well. “Change is hard. It just really is hard. And it requires growth by all kinds of people. But if you want the world to change, you have to be willing to work your way through those kinds of situations.”

Following this incident, she felt the college was more galvanised behind her diversity vision. “I would say the consequence of the healing was that...faculty would now say, ‘Diversity and inclusion is not something that the president does. It’s something we own.’”

Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1951, Klawe says her self-belief stems from being treated like a boy when she was young. “I was the second of four girls and my father thought of me as his son, and I thought of myself as his son,” she says. Recognising her intellectual ability, her father “would never say something like ‘You shouldn’t do that, because you’re a girl.’ He would say, ‘Of course you should do that.’”

Nor was her father necessarily as ahead of his time as might be assumed. It is not the case, Klawe insists, that computer science began with a low proportion of women, which has slowly grown ever since. In the 1980s, lots of women studied computer science, and there was a higher proportion of women in the tech industry than there is now, Klawe says. “At that time, a lot of the programming was still done on punch cards. And one of the things that was really important was being able to type accurately. And so probably 35 per cent of the computer programmers were female because they had been trained in typing.”

However, the first computer games released for personal computers in the early 1980s typically appealed more to boys than girls. The number of men in the industry ballooned, but it was only in the late 1990s and early 2000s that people began to notice the drop in women.

Klawe was an avid promoter of women in science even before she had climbed the career ladder. When she arrived at British Columbia, she was not only the first female head of computer science but also the first female head of any science department at the university. During recruitment for a new dean of science – her future boss – she asked every interviewee what they were going to do to encourage more women into science. “None of them had a good answer. The person who had the best answer said, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing against women in science.’”

Have times definitively changed? Perhaps – but on the day Klawe sits down with THE, the news site Politico has just reported that Eric Lander, President Biden’s top science adviser and a professor at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, bullied his subordinates in the White House. Lander, who subsequently quit, is said to have behaved in a demeaning and abrasive way towards multiple women in particular, including his then general counsel, Rachel Wallace.

Klawe is clearly disturbed by the revelations. She has met the mathematician and geneticist several times and had no idea he was a bully, she says. “In some of the reports, it’s almost as though he knew it was really bad behaviour, but he couldn’t help himself. He’s somebody I have looked up to and respected. And I just feel...what’s the right word…betrayed.”

Despite the self-belief instilled by her father, Klawe admits to still doubting herself. “There’s always been a part of me that believed I could succeed at anything,” she says, “but there are two voices in my head. One says that no matter what I do, I’m a total failure; I always feel that way about myself.” Her tactic is to twist that negative voice into something positive: “One of the things about seeing things you do as failure is that it helps you to do better the next time. It means you’re constantly evaluating yourself against a very high standard of achievement.”

In terms of good management, Klawe credits much of her learning to her time at IBM. More generally, she thinks the corporate sector is still better at providing management training than universities are. At Harvey Mudd, she has tried to rectify this by providing mentoring for department chairs.

After 15 years as president of Harvey Mudd College, Klawe will step down when her contract expires in June 2023. She could retire, but she believes she still has more to do, and she hopes to take up another presidency. Wherever she goes should clearly be prepared for a shake-up.

“One of the things I’ve been very clear about throughout my career is that I really care about improving the participation of women and also people of colour,” she says. “And, you know, some people will see that as a plus, and some people think it’s terrible. But it is what I do.”

Quick facts

Born: Toronto, 1951

Academic qualifications: BSc and PhD in mathematics from the University of Alberta; she started a PhD in computer science at the University of Toronto but was offered a faculty position there before completing the degree

Lives with: Her husband

Academic hero: Grace Murray Hopper, an American computer scientist

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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