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Leading Advocate for Women in Engineering Addresses Gender and Game

Gener and Game: Why It MattersA leading advocate of women and minorities in engineering, science and mathematics careers spoke recently at Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing, as part of the lab's continuing Science & Humanities Speaker Series.

Maria M. Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. and a renowned computer scientist and researcher, told an audience of 200 researchers and interns that computer gaming, if directed with women's interests in mind, will attract young women to computer science and engineering in greater numbers.

"Women-in particular young women-should matter to game developers," the educator said of the field that has long been dominated by men. "It just makes sense for an industry that has seen saturation among male players to include women as a prospective market."

Dr. Klawe recalled a conversation she had with an executive at a leading game manufacturer a few years ago. "He told me, 'Girls will never spend money on computer or video games. We just don't care about them.'"

"Things are now different," Dr. Klawe said to laughter. "Now, Microsoft and other companies are considering games that appeal to 55-year-old women like me."

In fact, she confessed, she has long been a computer games aficionado.The mother of two said that when her own son was an adolescent, she would promise to play computer games he loved as a way to just get him to chat, much less study. He later earned an M.Sc. in computer science at Princeton and is a computer graphics researcher.

"We thought he was an extraordinarily lazy kid," she joked. "He now works 14 hours a day, seven days a week."

Can computer games really be produced that will be motivational to young women and girls, Dr. Klawe asked. "The answer is yes, but it depends on making the games attractive and appealing to (women's and girl's) interests."

In point of fact, research conducted by Dr. Klawe's teams found that girls and young women spend less time playing computer and video games than boys and young men. "That's no surprise since men design games that interest men," Dr. Klawe said.

Other factors are also at play. Girls approach games with a different psychology and immerse themselves far less in "game culture" than boys with the gaming bug, she said.

By use of iterative designs of game prototypes, longitudinal classroom studies, tightly focused short-term studies, along with detailed log files, observations, video, interviews, tests and questionnaires, over seven years Dr. Klawe and researchers were able to follow several hundred children, boys and girls from the ages of eight to 13, and view the children's approach to games.

"Each year, during the first three weeks of the study, the boys were much more aggressive at taking over control of the games and computers," Dr. Klawe said to laughter from the Microsoft Research Asia audience, largely comprised of young men.

Boys also dominated discussions and seemed to progress through the games more quickly. But when teachers intervened with discussion groups segregated by gender, and allowed one day per week for boys alone and girls alone to play the games, "we quickly saw much more engagement by girls in both play and discussions," Dr. Klawe indicated.

"While the boys tended to make faster progress going through the games, there was no difference at all in the learning gains made. Girls did just as well as boys. We found that boys love to race to a new level in the game or to win. But what matters more to girls is savoring the experience, and using the computer for doing something useful."

Game makers who want to attract women or girls as a market will have to learn something from the film industry, and choose to tailor products that include more complex story lines and appealing characters, she said. "If every movie made was about war, sports, wrestling, or car racing, would women go to see them? Of course not."

Dr. Klawe's presentation, entitled "Gender, Games and Does it Matter?" was well received, said lab Assistant Managing Director Hsiao-Wuen Hon. "She has great insights and shared great information with us. Dr. Klawe is an inspiration to everyone here, especially our women researchers and young women interns."

Dr. Klawe's journey to Harvey Mudd as its first woman president is part of a trend at the college, where the percentage of women students and faculty has grown at rates far greater than most schools across the nation. Since 1990, the number of women studying at Mudd has increased from 20 percent to 33 percent. And, the percentage of women on the faculty has grown from 17 percent in 1995 to 35 percent.

She earned a B.Sc. degree and doctorate in mathematics at the University of Alberta, Canada, and held academic positions at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the University of Toronto and Oakland University. She spent eight years at IBM's Almaden Research Center in California, first as a research scientist, and then as manager at group and department levels.

In 2002, she organized the Aphasia Project at UBC, bringing together faculty from human-computer interaction, psychology, and audiology and speech sciences, to provide tools for people with aphasia (loss or partial loss of language function most commonly caused by stroke). The project has explored handheld devices to improve quality of life and independence for scores of victims of the disease.

In addition to offices held at major computing organizations, Dr. Klawe is chair of the board for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto. She has worked as a trustee for the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at UCLA, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, and the American Mathematical Society.

For her advancements in her field, Dr. Klawe has been awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Alberta, Acadia University, Dalhousie University, Queen's University, the University of Waterloo and Ryerson University.

Dr. Klawe is married to Nicholas Pippenger, a professor of computer science and mathematics at Princeton, who joined Harvey Mudd's faculty last year. They have two children, Janek and Sasha.