Taking Action to Support College Women in Tech


We have been building a nonprofit focused on supporting and preparing college women with a passion for technology for 18+ months, and I believe the time is right to share our story with a broader audience. Rewriting the Code is hyper-focused on supporting college women who are passionate about computing. An incredible number of young women begin their college journey with passion for computer science and engineering, yet change majors along the way. The enrollment of women in introductory college computer science classes ranges between 40–50%. However, there is a precipitous drop in women’s participation in such classes, year over year, resulting in an average computer science graduation rate of women of 18%. Even more disturbing, this alarmingly low graduation rate has persisted for more than 14 years.

There are incredible nonprofits who support middle school and high school girls. This is important work! However, if the flame that is lit in K-12 is extinguished in college, we are not making progress. The overwhelming majority of universities, computer science departments and career services departments are falling down on the job in their support for future women engineers and technologists. Harvey Mudd, Carnegie Mellon and a handful of select programs receive well-deserved credit for the changes they have made in graduating women technologists, however, their efforts and lessons learned are largely not duplicated by their peer institutions. The data speaks for itself. It is time to start taking action on behalf of the women students rather than studying and admiring the problem.

Rewriting the Code launched in late 2016, following a six month Computer Science Department consulting engagement I was involved in at my alma mater, Duke University. A large part of our work focused on the ‘why’ behind the drop out rate. I was taken back by the deep-seeded feelings of isolation, and lack of confidence expressed by many of the women students. My biggest personal takeaway from the experience was that these were incredibly addressable issues, and an actionable program had the potential to make an immediate impact.

I am not an engineer — as an economics undergraduate and healthcare administration masters student, I never took a single computer science or engineering class at Duke. I grew up in a middle class family in NYC and was a first generation college student. I was a fish out of water when I arrived at Duke and saw many of the traits in these young women in my former self. I survived and thrived in college because I was part of an incredible community…the Duke women’s basketball team. In that group of 12 teammates I found inspiration, support, role models, and life long friends. When any of us failed on the court or in the classroom, someone was always there to pick us up. When things got hard, I was part of something bigger that pushed and inspired me to continue. As I became an ‘upperclasswomen’ I pushed younger teammates and emerged as a vocal leader. The Rewriting the Code Program reflects much of the encouragement, community building and skills that I found to be of tremendous help in my experience.

Rewriting the Code had developed a 12-month program for 1st-4th year women students with five core components:

1) Community: within and across campuses.

2) Applied work experience: through summer internships and PT work with tech companies throughout the academic year

3) Mentorship: focused largely on near peer mentors provided by our corporate partners

4) Education: personal and leadership skill development

5) Career Path: exposure to technology disciplines and early career opportunities across a wide variety of companies and industries

I believe we have proven the need for our work. Here is our student growth:

Fall 2016-Summer 2017: 100 students from 20 universities

Fall 2017-March 2018: 825 students from 159 universities

Spring 2018: 2019 Fellowship application opened on 4/1/2018 (due to dramatic acceleration in the tech recruiting timelines). I expect we will have 1,500+ applicants

The challenges facing college women are complex. Rewriting the Code has chosen to focus on the two main stakeholders who, we believe, have the opportunity to make immediate impact: the women students and companies. The student interest is tremendous. We have found that this community of amazing women in the Program are the most powerful forces in spread the word of our work across their peer groups. We have have the great fortune of connecting with several CIOs, diversity & and inclusion and human resource leaders who are suppporting our efforts. Bank of America, NVIDIA, CITRIX, the Investors Exchange, SAS, Fidelity, Bandwidth, Teamworks, Morgan Stanley and many others are participating in the education, mentoring and skill development of the students.

Rewriting the Code will faciliate a more impactful model for impacting the 18%. We are off to a positive start, and commit to continually improving and refining our approach to best serve the women and the companies. I can promise you we will continue to take action, actively listen to the audience we serve, solicit feedback and improve. The time is now.

Sue Harnett is the founder + president of Rewriting the Code, a nonprofit focused on preparing college women studying computing for careers in technology