Future Tense

Why Have So Few Women Won the Most Important Award in Computing?

Since 1966, 70 computer scientists have won the Turing Award. Only three have been women.

Grace Hopper stands in her Navy uniform, arms crossed, in front of a massive computer.
Navy Rear Adm. Grace Hopper in 1978. Lynn Gilbert/Wikimedia Commons

Recipients of the Turing Award—widely considered the Nobel Prize of computing—may not be household names, but their innovations have wired our lives. Tim Berners-Lee (2016 Turing Award recipient) invented the World Wide Web and the first web browser. Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman (2015 recipients) invented public-key cryptography—the security ingredient that permits us, for example, to enter credit card numbers online with confidence. Raj Reddy (1994) pioneered artificial intelligence, which enables computers to understand spoken language. Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton, and Yann LeCun’s (2018) breakthroughs in deep learning have enabled self-driving cars, facial recognition, and more.

Nominations for the 2019 Turing Award are due to the Association for Computing Machinery—the awarding organization—by Jan. 15. The ACM typically announces the winner(s) in March. Later in June, it will honor the recipient(s), along with winners of its other, less prestigious computing prizes, at an awards banquet in San Francisco. If you attend, you’ll notice something stark: Nearly all of those who have received computing’s top prize have been men.

Reading through the recipient list, you could easily come away with the false impression that men are responsible for nearly all computing breakthroughs. Since the Turing Award’s inception in 1966, 70 computer scientists have won it, only three of whom have been women. The first female recipient didn’t win until 2006—it took 40 years to recognize a woman. Some hypothesize that the dearth of women Turing Award recipients reflects women’s underrepresentation in the field. However, the roughly 4 percent of women recipients does not approximate the fact that women currently earn 21 percent of the Ph.D.s in computer science, down from the 1987 peak of 37 percent.

Million-dollar prizes like the Turing Award seize the public’s attention. Winners are sought-after, invited to give high-profile speeches, meet with business leaders, and advise politicians. For a certain nerdy cohort—one I belong to—they are heroes. In public programming emanating from the ACM Awards Banquet and beyond, they serve as role models to inspire young people. When women’s contributions are overlooked, the public forgoes opportunities to derive inspiration and gain advice from an important sector of computing pioneers.

And the ACM has definitely missed opportunities to recognize pioneering women computer scientists. Grace Hopper (1906–1992) worked on the first commercial computer produced in the U.S., created the first complier, and invented the first English-like data processing language. The ENIAC Team—Betty Jean Bartik, Kathleen McNulty, Mauchly Antonelli, Ruth Teitelbaum, Frances Spence, Marlyn Meltzer, and Frances Holberton—was responsible for the world’s first general-purpose computer used for calculating World War II ballistic trajectories. Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1913–1985) helped develop BASIC computer code. Radia Perlman (born in 1951) developed spanning tree protocol, making the internet possible. Judy Clapp (born in 1930) developed an air defense system prototype that used radar to track and direct aircraft courses. Karen Sparck Jones* (1935–2007) developed inverse document frequency, the technology underlying modern search engines. Stories of women computing pioneers could fill books. In fact, they do: A few gems include Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, When Computers Were Human, and Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea.

Fostering better gender inclusivity among Turing Award recipients and in the larger computing community is not only good for women—it’s also good for innovation and discovery. Gender diversity in science enhances the variety of viewpoints, questions, and areas addressed by researchers—leading to a “gender diversity dividend.” Heterogenous groups of problem-solvers have been shown to outperform groups of homogenous, high-ability problem solvers, according to one study. Participants in diverse groups have been shown to prepare better in anticipation of dissenting opinions, which provokes thought and enhances their creativity, according to other studies. As one author wrote, “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.”

Nonetheless, research shows that systemic implicit and explicit bias impede women computer scientists. Pervasive stereotypes suggesting that they do not possess innate scientific talent also undermine women. Women who are perceived as feminine or adept at interpersonal skills are often deemed ill-suited for computing.

However, there is good news: Many of the very influential men who have received the Turing would prefer for the award to be more inclusive. “We have been trying to prime the pump by having the [ACM] committees pay more attention to encouraging nominations in accordance with this broad desire to have all of the people represented,” said Vinton Cerf (2004), recent co-chair of the ACM awards committee, and current chief internet evangelist at Google—where he is working on an interplanetary internet, among other pursuits.

Recognizing more women wouldn’t, by itself, reduce the institutional barriers that limit women’s advancement in computing. At universities, women researchers are called on for internal service roles tending to the “academic family” more often than men, which constrains their research time. Lack of maternity leave and affordable child care disproportionately affect women scientists during the vital early-career stages. Also, some family-friendly policies exacerbate gender inequities among research scientists, particularly as family leave policies have been shown to reduce men’s teaching loads at a higher rate than women’s. On-site child care has been shown to increase men’s journal publications—but only women’s teaching duties.

Some of the institutional problems are mirrored in the process of identifying potential Turing Award winners. The ACM relies on prominent computer scientists to write letters of support nominating candidates for the award. Academic letters in the sciences, necessary for career advancement and award nominations, have been shown disproportionately to contain language raising doubts about women electing to pursue science, which corroborates an earlier study. Those who are charged with evaluating professional accomplishments often do not account for men’s tendency to overestimate their abilities or women’s tendency to underestimate theirs. The result is a pool of Turing Award nominees that bears striking similarities to 50 years’ worth of draw-a-scientist experiments, in which children asked to draw a scientist overwhelmingly draw men. To be sure, not every woman in computing experiences all of these challenges. But many experience some.

“We typically receive one woman nominee [for the Turing Award] every five years. It’s very disturbing,” said ACM President Cherri Pancake in September at the most recent Heidelberg Laureate Forum, an annual gathering of math and computer science laureates.

“We need to nominate more women,” said Turing Award recipient Robert Tarjan (1986) at the time. “I can think of a number of women who should be nominated. They are deserving women.”

Indeed. The ACM has made some progress toward gender inclusivity with regard to the Turing in recent years. Frances Allen (2006) was recognized for her work optimizing compilers—programs that translate code from one programming language into another. That laid the foundation for automatic parallel execution, in which large computational problems are divided into smaller ones that are solved simultaneously. Barbara Liskov (2008) was honored for pioneering contributions to programming languages and system design. And Shafi Goldwasser (2012) was celebrated for paving the way for the science of cryptography and inventing methods for efficiently verifying mathematical proofs in the study of complex systems.

Nonetheless, Allen, Liskov, and Goldwasser could use company not only on a potential trip to the ACM Awards Banquet or the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, but in the public’s collective conscious concerning what computer science heroes look like.

Correction, Jan. 7, 2020: This article originally misidentified Karen Sparck Jones as Katherine Spark Jones.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.