Features

net.wars: Equal prizes

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 23 February 2007


It's been quite a week for women. Wimbledon has announced equal prize money "across the board" for men and women, and a woman has won the Alan M Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery.

Wendy M Grossman

Please don't confuse that with passing the Turing test; Frances Allen is - like Ada Lovelace [right] a pioneer in computer science, not a cleverly built robot.

That concrete pig a friend gave me as a sort of anti-garden gnome is adjusting his aviator goggles and getting ready to take flight. In the scheme of things, a woman's winning the Turing Award ought to be the less surprising of the two events.

Although few women make the mainstream news in computing, there have been enough of them in computing history that it surely had to happen. The All-England Club, which stages the Wimbledon tennis championships every year, is a private club that can do anything it wants, and has for years insisted that the surveys it's carried out show that the audience prefers men's tennis. (To which I say, "Who did you ask?")

Anyway: the silly arguments are finally over now, and the best part of that is that we won't have to read the same debate every June. It had gotten boring. Twenty years ago.

The list of Turing Award winners includes some pretty impressive and famous people ? Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy for artificial intelligence, Vint Cerf and Robert E. Kahn for the protocols underlying the Internet, Maurice Wilkes, who went on from designing and building the first computer with an internally stored program to inspire generations of computer scientists at Cambridge.

The first female winner's work, like the work of many other winners, is less familiar as it's in high-performance computing rather than something as mainstream as the Internet. It's not a sign of prejudice that she wasn't better known until now.

I wish I could say that Allen is the first of many. That's not clear. She's almost certainly the first of some. But the truly sad thing is that the numbers of women in computer science have been dropping steadily over the last decade or two, in both Britain and America (and other countries, too).

I recently had occasion to interview Nigel Shadwell, the head of the British Computer Society (the ACM's British equivalent), and he was quite open about it. He named several female BCS Fellows (a designation you need experience and kudos to get), and concluded, "They are there, but not in the numbers we'd like." Only 6 percent of BCS Fellows are women, though the BCS is determined to improve on that. (Bear in mind also that the average age of Fellows is 60, although it's beginning to drop as the generation who grew up with computers in their homes begin to take advantage of that substantial head start.)

Shadwell blamed early socialising in schools, where girls get the message early that computer science is a hard career to juggle with the demands of any families they might want to have ? and also that the geek image is not one you want to have if you're a girl.

Nonetheless, Shadwell said the BCS numbers are getting a little better. Of the membership as a whole, 14 percent are women. But of the new members the BCS has been recruiting, 20 percent are female.

Does it matter?

Shadwell thought so. "Modern IT is about social skills as much as technical skills," he told me.

That statement doesn't fill me with as much delight as it might! I'd rather hear that women are needed for their technical genius than the old saw about how they're better with people. Note that Allen has won her awards for fundamentally changing a technical field.

The odd thing is that there are more women in the history of computing than most people realise. Six female mathematicians programmed ENIAC. Contrary to today's idea that only young males could be obsessive enough to spend all that time with their computers, 50 years ago it was thought that only women had the patience to be programmers.

There are several reasons why it does matter to get women into computer science. The first is for the women themselves: why should they miss out on interesting, challenging careers because of some stupid stereotype? The second is simple numbers and applies to all the hard sciences: we need all the talented people we can get entering those fields. The third is practical: computers pervade every part of life.

The greater the diversity of the people designing them, the better.

Daily Tennis points out today that equalising prize money at Wimbledon, while an important gesture, goes only a small way to redress the prize money gap. The women's tour overall has 22 percent less prize money on offer than the men's (men, by the way, play almost exclusively three-set matches away from the Grand Slams), and the Wimbledon change goes only about 1 percent of the way towards narrowing that gap.

The chief effect, therefore, is to make the All-England club stop looking like antediluvian, misogynist dorks. Percentagewise Allen's win is smaller than that. But it will remind an entire generation of girls that it's cool to be a computer scientist.


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