Our Fairygodboss of the Week has devoted her career to placing more women in STEM careers. After successful stints at major tech companies, Maria Klawe moved into education and became the first woman to lead Harvey Mudd College — a position she still holds today. Read on below to learn more about this renowned scientist and scholar.
Fairygodboss of the Week: Maria Klawe
President, Harvey Mudd College
FGB: Tell us about your career. How did you get to where you are now?
MK: I'm an academic mathematician and computer scientist who has been passionate about getting more women into STEM careers since my teenage years. Soon after my Ph.D. I joined IBM Research in San Jose, then went to UBC in Vancouver as head of the CS department. After various other roles there, including Dean of Science, I went to Princeton as Dean of Engineering. I became the fifth president of Harvey Mudd College in 2006.
FGB: What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?
MK: I'm very proud of the work at Harvey Mudd College that has significantly increased the percentage of CS, engineering and physics majors that are female. We have now graduated a class in each of these majors that was more than half female. Of course, this work resulted from the dedication of many faculty, staff and students at the college.
FGB: What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
MK: I had a concussion resulting from a bicycle accident in 1994 (and yes, I was wearing a helmet) that caused significant loss of cognitive function, severe depression and suicidal ideation. It took me four years to seek help for the depression and recover fully from the cognitive deficits.
FGB: What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you?
MK: Be willing to ask for help. This is something that took me a long time to learn. I've been the first woman to hold my position for almost thirty years and for most of that time, I've been reluctant to ask for help because it would make me feel even more vulnerable to criticism. I finally realized that asking for help (and taking it) is a strength rather than a weakness.
FGB: Why do you love where you work?
MK: I love the opportunity to be part of a community that is dedicated to the education and personal development of our amazing students.
FGB: Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? Why?
MK: Sheryl Sandberg is my Fairygodboss because she helped Harvey Mudd College become much better known for our success in attracting women to computer science, engineering and physics. In turn, that visibility has helped us help other universities and colleges make progress, and also attract many more black and Latinx students to Harvey Mudd
FGB: What do you do when you’re not working?
MK: I paint watercolors, kayak, hike, ski, read books and cuddle with cats and my husband Nick.
FGB: If you could have dinner with one famous person — dead or alive — who would it be?
MK: Anita Borg. She died from brain cancer in 2003 at the age of 54. She was one of my closest friends and I miss her enormously. I would love to have one more dinner with her where we drink lots of wine and marvel at how huge the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing has grown.
FGB: What is your karaoke song?
MK: “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young.
FGB: What is your favorite movie?
MK: “Good Will Hunting.”
FGB: What book would you take with you on a desert island?
MK: “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson.
FGB: What is your shopping vice? What would you buy if you won the lottery?
MK: Watercolor paints, brushes and paper.
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