Science Diversity Meme: The CS Mutant

Mar 11 2008 Published by under Meta

At Science, Education, and Society, the Urban Scientist
posts a meme to name five women scientists from each of a list of fields. Sadly, my fields are left off the list. So I'll respond in my own way
by adding computer science. This is a very idiosyncratic list - it's women
who are particularly important to my own experience as a student and later
practitioner of computer science.

It's worth noting that I've got a very atypical experience as a computer
scientist, in that many of the most influential people in my
career have been women. That's very unusual, given the incredibly skewed
ratio of men to women in computer science. But as an undergraduate student,
a graduate student, and a professional researcher, the majority of people who had a great influence on my education and career have been women.

  1. Fran Allen. In a list of women in computer science, Fran has to
    be at the top. (I've met Fran Allen personally, and she told me
    to call her Fran.) Fran was the first woman to earn the Turing award - and
    the only real question concerning her getting it is why the hell it took
    so long. I used to work at IBM Research, where Fran also works, but I knew
    about her long before I went there. Fran is one of the people who
    created the field of compilers. I had the amazing good
    fortune to meet Fran on several occasions, and she's one of the
    most pleasant, interesting people that I've ever spoken to. She's also
    an incredibly active advocate for women in math and science, and her
    tireless effort has probably brought more women into the field than
    anyone else. (Yes, when it comes to Fran, I am pretty much a drooling
    fanboy. Fran is my idol :-). If in my career, I can accomplish 1/50th
    of what Fran did, I'll be a very proud and happy person.)
  2. Grace Murray Hopper. Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was one of the designers of the
    Cobol programming language. You could make an argument about whether
    Adm. Hopper or Fran Allen really deserved to be the first woman to earn
    the Turing award. Personally, having heard her talk a few times, I don't
    think she held a candle to Fran. But it's undeniable that she played
    a crucial, formative role in the creation of what become computer
    science and software engineering.
  3. Ada Lovelace. You can't fairly talk about women in computer science
    without mentioning Lady Ada Lovelace. She was, arguably, the first
    programmer ever.
  4. Jeanne Ferrante. Professor Ferrante once worked at IBM, but left before I
    got there. I've never gotten to meet her. But she wrote one of the first
    static analysis papers that I ever read, which had a whole lot to do with what
    I've ended up doing with my life.
  5. Barbara Ryder. Barbara is a professor at my undergraduate alma mater.
    I never had the good fortune to take a class taught by her, but I got
    to know her anyway. She's one of the leading researchers in static analysis,
    and her students are some of the leading lights in compilers, programming
    languages, static analysis, and compiler optimization. She's also one
    hell of a tough person, who's done an amazing amount to fight to get
    women involved in computer science.

This list leaves off some women who've played major roles in my life and career. Like, for instance, my wife, who is a brilliant computational linguist (smarter and a better researcher than I am); my PhD advisor, Lori Pollock, who is an amazing researcher and
the best advisor a student could ask for; my academic grandmother,
Mary Lou Soffa; and one of my favorite current researchers in
software engineering, Gail Murphy.


No responses yet

  • Nomen Nescio says:

    Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was one of the designers of the Cobol programming language.

    not only that, but she was so remarkably good at what she did, most of us programmers have even forgiven her for COBOL.
    (i kid, i kid --- i know it was revolutionary for its time. but damn, ever had to work with it in the modern day and age? i sometimes call Java the present-day Cobol, and i don't know which language i'm insulting the worse!)

  • Henry says:

    A related interesting question is: which women computer scientists are future Turing Award winners?
    Off the top of my head I'd have to say that Nancy Lynch is due one (although Leslie Lamport is probably ahead in the distributed systems queue)... Karen Sparck-Jones was incredibly influential in computational linguistics but sadly died recently. There must be others?

  • Mark C. Chu-Carroll says:

    Leslie Lamport is a guy.

  • Greg Laden says:

    Have you read Minimal Perl?
    It's written by a male. I'm reading it, and as I've been mentally complementing the author for almost always using a female gender whenever referring to a random individual in an example. I actually brought this up in my research seminar last week when speaking about how to achieve gender-neutral writing in a language where there is not word for "he and or she, singular"
    As I was speaking, it dawned on me that the female invoked in this book was always having a problem... "Suppose a system administrator can't figure X and Y out and doesn't want to use a SED script... she can use the following perl one-liner..." ... as opposed to "Joe the user was befuddled by the contents of his system log files, until Susie the Sysop came along with this great perl script..."

  • Henry says:

    Mark - yes, he is. I know. I've seen his photo.
    Nancy Lynch is not. I said it was her who was due a Turing Award, but that she was probably behind Lamport and therefore won't receive one until he does.

  • Coin says:

    We're still lacking a list for pure mathematics. I'll give it a shot:
    1. Emmy Noether*
    2. Maria Agnesi
    3. "Monsieur Le Blanc"
    ...okay, I guess I suck at math history. Anyone care to fill in from there?
    * Could also have qualified in the other thread as an influential physicist

  • Thony C. says:

    Coin asked:
    ...okay, I guess I suck at math history. Anyone care to fill in from there?
    A few lady mathematicians, I'm not very good on the 20th Century I'm afraid.
    Hypatia (370?-415)
    Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799)
    Marie-Sophie Germain (1776-1831)
    Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891)
    Christina Ladd-Franklin (1847-1930)
    Alicia Boole Stott (1860-1940)
    Emmy Noether (1882-1935)
    Rózsa Péter (1905-1977)

  • Joseph Knecht says:

    Julia Robinson is quite a famous 20th century female mathematician, though she desired not to be remembered as a female mathematician but just as a mathematician.

  • Pseudonym says:

    Another huge influence on me is the work of Barbara Liskov.

  • Jane says:

    Henry, what about Radia Perlman, the mother of the Internet?

  • Thanks MarkCC and readers. This list is great! I'm learning so much from everyone. The list is a great compilation. I've added your link to the original posting.
    Thanks for suggessting CS and thanks Coin for the Mathematicians.

  • Thony C. says:

    We could also do with some lady astronomers in there.
    Elisabetha Hevelius (1647-1693)
    Margaret Flamsteed (?-?)
    Maria Winkelmann-Kirch (1670-1720)
    Maria Clara Eimart (1676-1707)
    Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)
    BTW thanks for the mathematicians Coin! 😉

  • Jim Miles says:

    I think it's pretty offensive that you put Ada Lovelace alongside the others in the list. From what I've read, she was a drug-addicted dilettante and a narcissist only interested in Babbage and his work because she thought it would immortalise her in the history books - something which putting her in lists like yours only perpetuates. About the most complimentary thing one can say about her is that she was a publiciser of the field, but certainly not a programmer or scientist.
    I recommend Chapter 8 (The Enchantress of Numbers) of Doron Swade's "The Difference Engine" for an analysis of the extent to which Lovelace's achievements have been exaggerated. Here's an excerpt:
    "Historians close to the detail of Babbage's work express dismay at the well-intentioned but misguided tributes paid to Ada. Bruce Collier, whose historical study of Babbage's work remains unsurpassed, has this to say about the popular myth of Ada's role:
    "There is one subject ancillary to Babbage on which far too much has been written, and that is the contributions of Ada Lovelace. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Babbage wrote the 'Notes' to Menabrea's paper, but for reasons of his own encouraged the illusion in the minds of Ada and the public that they were authored by her. It is no exaggeration to say that she was a manic depressive with the most amazing delusions about her own talents, and a rather shallow understanding of the both Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine ... To me, this familiar material [Ada's correspondence with Babbage] seems to make obvious once again that Ada was as mad as a hatter, and contributed little more to the 'Notes' than trouble ... I will retain an open mind on whether Ada was crazy because of her substance abuse ... or despite it. I hope nobody feels compelled to write another book on the subject. But, then, I guess someone has to be the most overrated figure in the history of computing."
    Collier's savagery is perhaps directed less at Ada than at her ill-informed lionisation. Ada has a double allure for historians and compilers of women's biographical dictionaries - daughter of Byron and associate of Babbage."
    Given how well-researched the book was otherwise, I found myself reluctantly dropping the romanticised view of Lovelace after reading that chapter. It is a shame.

  • Jim Miles says:

    All that said, I've just noticed that last week In Our Time podcast (here: is all about Ada Lovelace and even has Doron Swade on it. I expect it will be a more balanced appraisal of Ada's contribution to the field than the quotation above. I'll have a listen tonight - I'm sure it will be entertaining and contain lots of debate. Check it out!

  • Tim Bartik says:

    I could be accused of promoting my mother with this comment, but I think it is worth noting that all 6 of the first programmers on the ENIAC (arguably the first electronic computer, although there is a lot of argument about this topic)back in 1945 and 1946 were women. These six women were Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum.
    You can find write ups on the Eniac programmers at the Women in Technology Hall of Fame at
    and a write up on a documentary in process on this topic at ABC News at

  • Brian Jaress says:

    @Jim Miles
    I don't know very much about Lovelace -- I've just heard her talked about as "the first programmer."
    But I have seen smears before. Your quote reads like a smear. I don't know what else the book says or how well researched it is, but a quote like that needs to be backed up with a heck of a lot more than the supposed eminence of the person being quoted.
    You've gotten me interested enough to research Ada Lovelace on my own. ("First programmer" sounded important but unexciting.)
    For now, I find it hard to believe that Babbage would falsely give someone else credit for unspecified reasons or that a woman of that period would expect history books to recognize her for any level of technical accomplishments.
    While I'm at it, I find it hard to believe that Collier is a serious biographer if he talks about his subject's contemporaries that way.

  • jayinbmore says:

    What about Susan Owicki?

  • MissPrism says:

    At Thus Spake Zuska, commenter Penny has been compiling a list of pioneering women in science, maths, engineering and medicine for quite a while.
    She lists them by birtday so we can have something to celebrate - there's a calendar here if you're interested.
    I've added some suggestions from this thread too, so thanks everyone - and if you know any birthdays I'm missing, do let me know.

  • Ben Hayden says:

    Lynn Stein. (aka "las", graduated MIT, currently teaching CS, AI, HCI at Olin College)

  • Steve says:

    One of my professional heroes (I'm a librarian with a specialty in mathematics) is Henrietta Avram.
    Avram was hired by the Library of Congress back in 1965 to develop a system for automating the printing of card-catalog cards. She led the development of the MARC (MAchine-Readable Cataloging) format, which debuted in 1968. Her writings on the format are to me models of clear reasoning embodied in clear prose.
    MARC is still in use today: I spend most of my 40 hours looking at records in this format. It's been widely criticized, and dozens of replacements for it have been attempted. And while many of the criticisms are valid, the proposed replacements haven't been able to surmount two problems: (1) MARC works, and (2) it works better than the proposed replacement. Whatever its faults, MARC is such a thing of beauty that I'm told some LC staffers claim that MARC stands for Mother Avram's Remarkable Contribution.
    Henriette Avram died in 2006. Though I never met her, I miss her much.

  • Thony C. says:

    @Brian Jaress
    Although Jim's description of Ada is somewhat over the top it is basically correct. Ada only wrote a description of Babbage's work that includes a description of the programming of his proposed Analytical Engine. The programmer was of course not Ada but Babbage himself. You can check the details both in Dorothy Stein's Ada, a Life and a Legacy and in Benjamin Woolley's The Bride of Science. Doron Swade who Jim quotes is one of the world's leading Babbage experts and really does know what he is talking about.

  • Chris says:

    I also believe that a surprising number of female computer scientists have influenced my work. When I was a sophomore, one woman shaped my early research interests in programming languages, and set me on the track to graduate school. Since then, I often found myself writing a paper where the top three related works were all authored by women. It could be confirmation bias -- I admittedly haven't done the proper analysis.
    Slightly alarmed about the remarks against Ada Lovelace; I hadn't heard that, and will have to look further. I hope it's not an attempted Rosalind Franklin-style smear.

  • Thanks for participating in the Science Diversity Meme - Women in Science. I've summarized the Meme and catalogued many of the submitted names. Visit the Women in Science Summary at my blog.

  • @Jim Miles:
    I researched Ada Lovelace's contributions and coauthored a piece for Scientific American 10 years ago with Betty Toole, who is a foremost scholar on Ada. There are a few historians, for some reason, hate Ada Lovelace, and I can't for the life of me understand why. I read her letters and other papers thoroughly, and the evidence seems quite clear that she wrote the Notes herself. Babbage was clearly the visionary behind this all, and he certainly guided Ada, but there's no evidence that he ghost-authored the Notes, while there is strong evidence to the contrary.
    For more details, I highly recommend checking out the Scientific American piece, which is sadly not online.