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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.

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"The big uptick is in sophomores who have mostly just taken our intro course," says Harry Lewis, director of Harvard's undergraduate computer science program. "The challenge will be whether we will hold onto them."

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Why the sudden interest in computer science at Harvard?

"That's where the money is," says Yiwei Zhao, a Harvard junior with a minor in computer science. Many women are hoping to find a job in finance or investment banking after graduation.

There's some logic to that. Demand for technology positions tends to stay fairly consistent, even during recessions, according to career consultant Laurence Shatkin in his 2009 book "150 Best Recession-Proof Jobs."

Another important catalyst driving women into the field of computer science is the concerted effort made by many schools to encourage women to do so. At the University of California, Berkeley, the director of diversity in the department of electrical engineering and computer science is spearheading a drive to get women into the field. The University of Texas hosts a free one-week camp for 60 high school girls called First Bytes.

Despite these efforts, not all top computer science schools are reporting growth. The University of Washington in Seattle, for example, conducts outreach programs to encourage undergraduate women to major in computer science. And the percentage of women majoring in computer science is relatively high – about 23 percent, according to Hank Levy, the chairman of the computer science and engineering department. But, he says, "we've been at this level for some time."

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., also reports no change in the number of women who have declared computer science as their major. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reports that the number of women pursuing computer science has been steadily decreasing.

As the pool of female computer science majors grows, one result may be that they encourage others to sign up. That's what's happening with Ms. Wong at Harvard. Two of her friends, both computer science majors, are urging her to switch. "They just thrive on problem solving," Wong says.

Given the state of the economy, it's a message that a growing number of college women may tune in to.

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