Women 3.0: Frances Allen

Name: Frances E. Allen

Short biography: Frances Allen was born in 1932 in Peru, New York. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in math from The New York State College for Teachers (now State University of New York at Albany) in 1954 and a master’s degree in math from the University of Michigan in 1957. That same year, Allen started working at IBM.1

What they do: Allen retired from IBM in 2002, where she first started work teaching FORTRAN in order to get out of school-caused debt. During her 45 year career with the company—she obviously decided that the job was a good one—Allen was a pioneer in the field of “compiler organization and optimization algorithms,"2 which is the process of fine-tuning a computer to complete processes such as executing a program or minimizing the amount of memory a program uses.3 Basically, it seems, Allen worked on making computers faster and more efficient.

Allen is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Association for Computing Machinery and the Computer History Museum. She is currently on the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, the Computer Research Associates board and National Science Foundation's CISE Advisory Board. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Philosophical Society. (Geeze. That’s some relaxing retirement.)4

Why they matter: When Allen first joined IBM, she was one of few women. “From 1963 to 1968, she was the only woman on a team of more than 40 scientists at IBM working on an advanced computing project that, among other things, helped meteorologists analyze large batches of data to predict weather. On another project, she worked with the U.S. National Security Agency to help build a computer that could break Cold War era code.”5

Allen was also the first woman to win one of the world’s most prestigious computing awards, the A.M. Turing Award for technical merit. (She won the award in 2007; the award is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.)5

Allen had won other computing awards previously at IBM. One of which came with a pair of cufflinks and a tie and another, for which she was recognized as the first female IBM Fellow, came with an award certificate that recognized the recipient for “his accomplishments.”5

“These anecdotes are funny, but they do represent having to break through a lot of walls that still exist today,” Allen said. “I believe we're moving into a whole new era for women in our field.”5

Allen now has an IBM award named after her.—the IBM Ph.D. Fellowship Award.4

How they got where they are: Allen took on a career to pay the bills, but found a calling. Through teaching others a “new” computer language. She worked hard in a male-dominated field and proved that women belong just as much as their male counterparts.

Resources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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