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Worried about jobs, college women go 'geek'

A rising share of computer science majors at top schools are women. High-tech jobs offer stability in an uncertain economy.

By Ilana GreeneContributor / June 27, 2011

The popularity of computer science has risen among women students, particularly at Harvard. From left, Lauren Carvalho, Shareen Asmat, and Dee Charlemagne checked out Ms. Charlemagne’s programming project at a university technology fair in December.

Courtesy of Rose Lincoln/Harvard University News Office

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Cambridge, Mass.

A year ago, Harvard University's student newspaper dubbed computer science the most "gender-skewed" major on campus – meaning that many more men majored in computer science than women. Then something happened. In a year, the number of women majoring in computer science has nearly doubled on the Harvard campus.

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"Computer science seems like a lot of fun, but it also proves to be a lifesaver," says Katrina Wong, a Harvard literature major who is considering switching to computer science. Since her father lost his job to the recession and she maxed out her credit cards, she's begun writing content for smart-phone apps that her college friends are creating for clients. "It's not a big income, but it buys me necessities as well as opens doors to profit-sharing opportunities."

The financial turmoil of the last few years has made it tougher for college graduates to find jobs. So women at several elite schools are turning to computer science – a field that they used to spurn – in hopes of landing secure employment opportunities after graduation. Their numbers are still small, but the influx of women into computer science programs may change the geeky male-dominated major into something far more cool.

"Men still seem to occupy the technology space," says Henry Chen, managing director of POM Partners, a New York-based digital-media advisory and consulting firm. But "compared with 10 years ago, we are slowly seeing more women enter the space."

The change is evident at some – but not all – of the top computer science programs in the United States. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, down the street from Harvard here in Cambridge, the number of female computer science majors has jumped 28 percent in the past three years. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the share of computer science majors who are women has moved from 1 in 5 in 2007 to 1 in 4 last year.

But the biggest change appears to be at Harvard. In the 2009-10 academic year, 13 percent of computer science majors were women, prompting the most "gender-skewed" moniker from the student-run Harvard Crimson. In the 2010-11 academic year, which just came to a close, 25 percent of computer science majors were women.

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