Even as first woman wins Turing award, it's hard to find a woman in compsci

IBM's Fran Allen wins prestigious award for her work on compilers, speaks out for structural changes to encourage women to enter computer science.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

Despite the fact that a woman won high-tech's most prestigious award this year, the industry woefully lacks in training and recruiting women into engineering and programming, reports USAToday.

IBM's Fran Allen became the first woman to win the A.M. Turing Award for computing recently but she's still a tiny minority of women programmers throughout the industry. When Allen, who's now retired from IBM Research, started in computing in 1957, companies recruited as many women as men. But 50 years later, women engineering students are rare indeed. Youngstown State University this month reported that 93 of 971 engineering students are women. Case Western Reserve has 201 women among its 1,908 engineering students.

Allen disagrees with some (like former Harvard President Lawrence Summers) that girls are less predisposed to math and science. She feels that beginning in the mid-1960s, the tech profession and public attitudes began scare off girls.

"It became more structured," she says. "Processes were put in place. There were expectations on what you knew when you were hired. People who were hired out of engineering schools were mostly men. There was a big change in the workplace — in who was doing what."

Allen, trained as a math teacher, was recruited by IBM in the 50s as a programmer in the research division.

"I had that one course, and I was probably more experienced than most of the people they hired," Allen says. She only took the job because, she says, "I needed to pay off debts, and then go back to my first love, teaching."

Allen won the A.M. Turing award for her work in the development of ways to speed up compilers, and that helped make high-performance computing possible.

"We're still not where we should be by a long shot," Allen says. "I'm hoping to use this award to try to have some influence to change the picture for women in the field. Young women just aren't going into computer science."
Editorial standards