A woman gets the top computer science prize for the first time

Frances E. Allen receives highest honor in male-dominated field.

Published February 21, 2007 7:51PM (EST)

The A.M. Turing Award -- the highest honor in the profession of computer science -- is granted annually by the Association for Computing Machinery to the likes of, oh, the fellows who laid the groundwork for the Internet and the guy who invented the mouse. And this year, for the first time since the award's inception in 1966, it's going to a woman.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, that woman is Frances E. Allen, 74, whose work "helped crack Cold War-era code and predict the weather." She also contributed to advances in parallel processing.

"We've always had lots of powerful machines," said Jeanne Ferrante, associate dean of engineering at the University of California at San Diego and a former colleague of Allen's. "But making them useful to people is really what Fran did."

Allen spent her entire career at IBM, with few female peers. (According to the Times, fewer than 20 percent of bachelor's degrees in the field are awarded to women -- a figure that hasn't really budged since 1994.) She won several of IBM's top awards as well. The various prizes: cufflinks, a tie clip, a certificate praising the recipient for "his accomplishments."

The Turing Award, for its part, comes with a nice, gender-neutral $100,000 -- and, in Allen's case perhaps, the promise of climate change for women in her field.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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