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First Woman Named Winner Of Prestigious Computing Award

Frances Allen, an IBM Fellow Emerita, receives the tech industry's equivalent of a Nobel Prize in computing.
When it comes to computer science, you've come a long way, baby.

For the first time since the annual honor began in 1966, a woman is the recipient of the A.M. Turing Award, which is granted by the Association for Computer Machinery and is widely considered the tech industry's equivalent of a Nobel Prize in computing.

Frances Allen, an IBM Fellow Emerita at the T.J. Watson Research Center who started her career as a computer scientist in the 1950s, was honored for her significant contributions in compiler design and program optimization. Her work led to advances in parallel, high-speed computing, including techniques used today in high-performance computers tackling challenges such as weather forecasting, global warming, and DNA matching.

However, of all her contributions to computing, Allen, 74, says she is "particularly delighted" about how her work led to simulated testing of nuclear bombs, "rather than exploding" the real thing.

Allen, who was educated in mathematics, says she started her career at a time when computer science degrees were rare and women were a more prevalent presence in early technology work. The shortage of women today in IT "is getting worse, that wasn't always the case," she says. In fact, three of her four co-managers in project work at IBM in 1959 were women.

Today, women with strong aptitude in math and science are more drawn to professions in biology and medicine rather than IT because women often perceive "more social good" in those other careers, she says. However, as high-performance computing continues to evolve, especially in areas such as health care and medical research, Allen says she's hopeful more women will be drawn to the tech field.

Allen over the years also was the recipient of several other industry honors, including being the first winner of the Anita Borg Award for Technical Leadership, which was presented at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in 2004.

Allen is retired but still has an office at IBM, where she continues to mentor both women and men.

Along with the prestige of the Turing award, the honor also comes with a $100,000 cash prize funded by Intel, which Allen will receive at a ceremony in June. But rather than splurge, Allen plans to put the money to good use. She'll be establishing a fund to help educate young girls in remote areas of the world where the opportunity to go to school is slim or nonexistent. Still today, "there are regions in the world where girls don't get educated, only boys," she says.

Also, don't expect Allen to be using any of her winnings to buy an iPod or other tech toy. Says Allen, "I'm not a gadget person."