Frances E. Allen, a former math teacher who later went on to become IBMs first female fellow, this week became the first woman to receive the prestigious A.M. Turing Award. In an interview, Allen discusses her roots growing up on a farm, the role of women in technology and how shell spend her prize money.
What are you most proud of?
There are two things; one is my early work on compilers. In 1957 I was involved in compilers and ended up establishing a structure, some of the algorithms and the idea of abstracting the technology so that it could be widely applied, as opposed to limited to one machine. It launched a lot of new work at the time.
The second is the wonderful people Ive worked with. Over the years, having been a part of and leading teams that have been very effective in the work that they did and having great careers has made me very proud.
I have read that you grew up on a farm. Do you think this had any influence on your interests in math and technology?
Thats a fascinating question because I think that as a farm kid, at least speaking for myself, I had a lot of responsibilities and a lot of freedom. It was a wonderful time to explore things, do things and grow the way I wanted to grow.
I have a theory that a lot of these early inventions were done by people who came from farms. I often run into people from my generation and we exchange backgrounds and I find that they, too, grew up on farms.
I was the oldest of six and we were all close in age. It was a Depression-era farm; we struggled financially a lot and we all had our chores to do. Yet we all look back at that period, despite the snow, rain and cold in the Northeast corner of New York, and we really, really enjoyed it.
You were first a high school math teacher—how did you end up at IBM?
I was actually teaching at the high school I graduated from. I was living back at home and needed to be certified as a math teacher, and one needed a masters degree to be able to do that. So, I went to University of Michigan to pursue a masters degree in mathematics, fully intending to return to teaching because I loved it. But at the end of the period, I was in debt and IBM came on campus hiring people to go into computing. I thought Id join IBM just until I got out of debt but that was the end of teaching for me.
It was 1957, it was a wonderful time and they were hiring a lot of women. The research group was located in Poughkeepsie at the time and they had a recruiting program that was targeted at women. I have this old brochure for women with purple flowers on it and it says, “My Fair Ladies.” Inside, they show that they were recruiting in four areas such as education and programming, but they were all technical.
It sounds forward for the time, but IBM has always had a good history in that.
How has the technology field changed for women since you arrived at IBM in 1957?
I have seen a lot of changes. In the area I was in 1957 and into the beginning of the 1960s, there were many women and I had many female colleagues. There were four peer managers working on the compiler and three were women. In 1960 it was just fine for women to be managing; it was nothing exceptional.
After working on a product, I returned to the research division at the end of the 1960s and the whole workplace had changed. There were very few women. I attributed that to computing itself becoming a profession and creating more rigid requirements of who could be hired. Most of these courses were being given in engineering schools, and the engineering schools had very few women at a time.
The field grew up a bit. Computer science itself didnt exist when I had come in; it became established in the mid-60s as a separate field. This is the point when I think things changed dramatically for women. As a field, it hasnt really recovered from that.
The gap between men and women coming in from universities still exists in the computer science field. While in nearly every one of the other sciences—biology, physics and the medical field—the gap has been closing, it has not been closing in computers.
What do you feel keeps more women from pursuing careers in math and technology?
I dont know what the answer is, though Ive pondered it a lot. I dont think its that girls in the middle school—where we often look for the source of the problem—I dont think that theyre shying away from science and mathematics, as some fields are doing very well. Ive always been suspicious of that argument that women dont like math and science.
I dont know where to look rather than our own field itself. What do we value in our field? Is the curriculum attractive? Are the possibilities widely known?
We have work to do on two fronts: First, on the curriculum and how we practice and position it. The answer is in the field. Its probably at the college curriculum level—not the courses per se, but the experiences and the decision to go into computing is difficult for both boys and girls. Many choose it as a major and then drop out.
The other is in the workplace. Theres a big movement right now highlighting that diversity in the workplace makes for better results.
Theres a lot of talk these days about a generation gap and talent gap in the technology field, namely that the IT is not replenishing its population with enough new recruits and graduates. Have you any thoughts on where the problem lies?
I believe that there was great excitement early on. You couldnt have had a more wonderful experience than I did at IBM in 1960. We worked through wonderful problems with wonderful people. There was always the sense that there was so much more to do, more than we ever had time for. The excitement is not as much now, which is unfortunate, because weve really just gotten started.
I think women could also be the missing piece in this equation. I think they could make contributions—maybe on the ease of use of computers, or in the style of work—but its hard to quantify if and how products would be different today with more women chiming in.
Theres a cash reward associated with the prize—may I ask what you are going to do with it?
Ive spoken with ACM about establishing a trust fund that can be directly used to educate poor children—probably girls but not necessarily limited to girls—who wouldnt have the possibility of getting an education. I visited an orphanage in Mongolia a couple summers ago and, boy, Id love to see some of those kids get an education. Four years at a school there would cost less than it would for a student here to attend one semester at a school here.
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