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Subject: Anita Borg, Trailblazer for Women in Computer Field

Dies at 54
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Date Posted: April 10, 2003 7:23:34 EDT

Anita Borg, a computer scientist who devoted much of her career to the advancement of women in computer science, died on Sunday at her mother's home in Sonoma, Calif. She was 54.

The cause was brain cancer, said her husband, Winfried Wilcke.

Although highly respected as a computer scientist, Dr. Borg made her biggest mark as a champion and mentor of women in what has traditionally been a man's field. Through the several programs she founded, she became virtually synonymous with involving women in the emerging science.

In 1987, after returning from a technical conference where she was one of only a handful of women present, Dr. Borg started Systers, an electronic mailing list on technical subjects exclusively for women who are engineers.

"Somewhere in the middle of doing all this technical research she realized that what she really wanted to do was not study computers but use computers to link people," said Brian Reid, who hired Dr. Borg into his research group at the Digital Equipment Corporation's Western Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1986.

Dr. Borg was strict about who was allowed to be on the list, limiting recipients to women with highly technical training, and the discussions were rigorously confined to technical issues, said Maria Klawe, dean of engineering at Princeton University and a longtime friend of Dr. Borg.

"When someone would go off topic, they would get a polite, personal message from Anita reminding them to stay on the subject," said Dr. Klawe, who joined the list 15 years ago.

The Systers list has since grown to include more than 2,500 women in 38 countries. Dr. Borg continued to run the list until she became ill in 2000.

Dr. Klawe, now president of the Association of Computing Machinery, said support from those on Systers helped her achieve that position.

Occasionally Dr. Borg loosened the rules to allow members to call attention to, say, advertisements that were demeaning to women. In 1992, when Mattel Inc. began selling a Barbie doll that said "math class is tough," the voices of protest that started with the Systers list played a role in getting Mattel to remove that phrase from Barbie's microchip, Dr. Klawe said.

In 1994, Dr. Borg was co-founder of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women, a conference held every two years focusing on the research and career interests of women in computing.

Dr. Borg left Digital in 1997 and joined the Xerox Corporation's Palo Alto Research Center. Soon after she arrived in her new job, she founded the Institute for Women and Technology, or I.W.T., a nonprofit organization, in part to encourage women to consider entering the technology industry, even if it meant learning new skills.

Anita Borg Naffz was born in 1949 in Chicago. Her first interest was in mathematics, said her mother, Beverly Naffz.

Dr. Borg's bent for computer science emerged while she was attending New York University, where she received her Ph.D. in 1981. Her dissertation was on operating system principles, a highly technical subset of computer science.

She is survived by her husband, Dr. Wilcke, of Los Altos Hills, Calif.; her mother, Ms. Naffz, of Sonoma.; and her sister, Lee Naffz, of Leavenworth, Wash.

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