Friday, October 03, 2008

GHC Keynote Fran Allen on Diversity

Both of the keynote speakers at GHC have been very interesting. On Thursday we were honored by hearing Francis Allen, the first woman to win the Turing Award (the highest award in the computing field). I actually had the honor of meeting Fran Allen on the shuttle ride from the Denver Airport to the Keystone resort. She's a great lady, and definitely has strong opinions about where the field of computing is going as well as the state of women in our field. Although she spoke primarily of technical aspects of the field during her talk, she also spoke on her beliefs about the reason the number of women in computing dropped, based on her experiences in the field. Apparently, in the 1960's the field of computing started to become a major at universities and was based out of engineering departments. Well, engineering departments were primarily male, so suddenly women who were entering computing from other fields were blocked from entry as they didn't have the engineering knowledge that was suddenly defined as necessary. So by the 1970's the number of women had dropped in the field, and the glass ceiling started to exist.

This is a view of the problem that I've never heard before, and find very interesting. For everyone who actually thinks that women don't belong in computing or aren't capable of being in computing, this could finally convince them they are wrong. Not only are women now a large number of engineers graduating each year (I believe it's around 50%), which proves that we are capable of being engineers, it also proves that women have always been interested and the reason they left is that they were pushed out by sudden strict requirements. Of course, these are things that most of us believe anyway, but maybe a true history of the changes in computing would help remind everyone that men are not automatically better at it, they just shaped the field in a way that preferred them at the time. We have bigger problems to look at too, like visibility and perception of computing, but if we can work on increasing everyone's knowledge of how our field became defined it may help the rest of our work as well.

My favorite quote from her talk is that she is "both honored and concerned" about being the first woman to win the Turing Award. If you want to read about the technical aspects of her talk & her views on awards, the GHC Wiki page on her keynote has lots of details (written by me!).

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