How to easily quadruple female computer science majors in four years

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Great school leaders are champions for equity.

They look at oppressive systems and do something about them. They use data to identify alarming trends and course correct.

As a leader in education, I’m sure you’ve wrestled with how to include more of your female students in STEM.

What if I told you, it’s actually not as hard as you might think?

The importance of asking the right question

“Good leaders ask great questions that inspire others to dream more, think more, learn more, do more, and become more.”

-John Maxwell

Some people collect stamps, comics, vintage coins. Not me. I collect questions.

And not just any old questions, but the right kind of questions because the right questions have been one of my keys to success.

Ask the wrong question, and you’ll usually arrive at the wrong answer.

Ask the right question and you set yourself up for success. The right answer is right around the corner.

So when it comes to increasing the participation of women in STEM fields like coding, the right question is the starting point.

Most schools will ask something along the lines of:

How can we encourage more women to pursue STEM?

Wrong question.

A better question is offered by Rory Sutherland in his fantastic book, Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life.

In that book, Sutherland suggests we ask:

How can we prevent tech careers from seeming unappealing to women?


The secret power of naming

“Create a name, and you’ve created a norm.”

-Rory Sutherland

What’s better than pizza?

Well, Chicago deep-dish pizza and New York thin crust pizza are both clearly superior to pizza.


Because of their descriptive names.

According to research by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, descriptive menu labels increase sales by 27%.

Don’t believe me?

What would you rather order at “Danny’s Serious Seafood Grill” …

Option A: Patagonian Toothfish

Option B: Chilean Sea Bass.

If you are like most diners, you would go for Option B, the Chilean Sea Bass.

A toothfish just sounds unappealing.

But guess what …

The Patagonian Toothfish is the same as a Chilean Sea Bass.

Names and Labels matter.

In 2006, the president of Harvey Mudd College changed a course previously called, “Introduction to programming in Java” to “Creative approaches to problem solving in science and engineering using Python.”

The result of a simple name change?

Female students who majored in computer science soared from 10 percent to 40 percent.

How about that? Not so hard after all.

The most popular courses tell students what’s in it for them.

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

-Paulo Freire

Thinking of an attractive name for your STEM department and courses is an exercise of empathy and relatively easy.

Understanding what would appeal to your target student should influence what you call classes in your school.

English 1


The Lyrical genius of modern hip hop masters.

Introduction to programming in Java


Creative approaches to problem solving in science and engineering using Python.

But don’t stop at the name.

Of course that wasn’t the only reason for Harvey Mudd College’s success in attracting more women to computer science.

Relevance is also key.

Female professors at Harvey Mudd took students to the annual Grace Hopper Conference to expose students to a celebration of women in tech.

The college also offered summer research programs that solve real world and interesting problems in the lives of their female computer science majors.

According to Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College:

“We had students working on things like educational games and a version of Dance Dance Revolution for the elderly. They could use computer technology to actually work on something that mattered.”

Some coaching points:

  • Get creative with your course and program names using language that would resonate with your target student.
  • Show your students successful professionals that have walked the path before them.
  • Create opportunities to solve interesting and relevant problems in your student’s lives.
  • And please . . . don’t do what every other school is doing. Innovate!

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Host of the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast with over one million downloads 🚀