Thursday, February 22, 2007

Frances Allen Receives Turing Award

The L.A. Times reports that the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has awarded the Turing Award to Frances Allen, the first women to be given the honor in the 40 year history of the award. (h/t Broadsheet).

The Assn. for Computing Machinery has granted the A.M. Turing Award for technical merit to no more than a few people each year since 1966. Winners include Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, who helped create the underpinnings of the Internet; Marvin Minsky, an artificial intelligence guru; and Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the modern computer mouse.

As one Broadsheet reader pointed out, it seems strange that Grace Murray Hopper did not receive this award (especially since she received just about every other award under the sun, including "Man of the Year" from the Data Processing Management Association in 1969).

I posted my thoughts in the Letters section on Broadsheet, but I want to expand here. The other letters in response to the Broadsheet piece are an interesting look into women in the field.

Presenting the award to a woman is a great start for the ACM, but it's just that, a start. The general professional organizations for the computer industry have attempted to attract and retain women in computing, but their efforts have often been too little too late. Other organizations like Women in Technology International (WITI) and Association for Women in Computing for women in the field have sprung up, but their worth varies depending on location. But, these women-specific organizations seem to be worth much more than anything ACM or IEEE have done.

On top of that, the number of women pursuing computer science degrees at the undergraduate level has actually declined. At higher levels (MS, PhD), the numbers are far more dismal.

One anonymous commentor on Broadsheet contends that no women are core developers in large software projects. I don't believe this is true. For a fact, I know some in the defense industry doing precisely that, but, they will never be recognized (at least not any time soon) because their work is classified or considered sensitive. Also consider the fact that many work environments for large scale software aren't pleasant. As a woman, you have to prove yourself technically competent before you can even begin to do anything important. Having to constantly prove yourself is a hassle and it's not fair when a new man comes into the office and is automatically taken more seiously and does not have a huge uphill battle to prove his competence.

And a personal anecdote to underscore the experiences of women in computing, for good measure.

About 5 years ago, during college, I was participating in the ACM's collegiate programming competition (yes, I'm a geek). This is a team competition, and it's a good thing to have on your resume/CV for grad school and careers. The unusual thing that year was that my team consisted entirely of women (myself, a CS major; L, a CS and Physics major; and M, a CS and Math major). We did well, placing in the top 10 in our division; however, our experience was less than pleasant. When walking around the competition, we were stared at, leered at. We were ingored, shunned (not terribly surprising since most of the folks at these competitions have limited social skills, particularly around the opposite sex). We were made fun of: "How are those girls going to handle this. What a joke." And best of all, when we went up to receive our award, we were catcalled and groped. When we got to the stage, the woman presenting the award regarded us as freaks and commented, "Well, I can't believe you girls placed." The following year, with a team of 2 women and one man, we won first place in our division. Of course, many present commented the man was the one who did all the work because those two girls couldn't possibly be good. At least I had a supportive woman professor as my team sponsor and mentor. She'd been there, done that, and had good advice and support for the female undergrads.

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