Turing Award Winner Sees New Day for Women Scientists, Engineers

By Jeffrey Thomas
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington –- Globalization is expanding the opportunities available to the science and engineering work force, including women, especially in multinational companies such as IBM, Intel and Microsoft, says Frances Allen, the first female winner of computer science’s prestigious Turing Award.

“Advances in computing, networks and information infrastructures have led to a globally connected capability whose power is just beginning to be used and understood,” Allen told USINFO in a recent interview.

“The isolated scientist or engineer has access to data, information and expertise. Collaborations on problems and projects are being done by teams of people located around the world. The work product, whether it is a scientific breakthrough or a new widget, can become quickly accessible to anyone interested,” Allen said.

“These new capabilities will, I believe, lead to new opportunities for women in science, computing and engineering,” she said.  With many people now working from home, “the change in the nature of the work pace and work schedules can ease the work/life balance issues that many people, especially women, face.”

Allen, 75, is the first woman to win the $100,000 Turing Award, which is named after Alan Turing, the British mathematician who is considered the father of computer science. The award has been given annually since 1966 but never before to a woman.

She received the award from the Association for Computing Machinery, an international scientific and educational organization, for innovations in high-speed computing.

Allen, who retired from IBM in 2002, is encouraging young women pursuing scientific careers to consider private industry as well as academia.  “I do believe that industry offers women in science, computing and engineering many successful career opportunities and that these opportunities will rapidly increase,” she said.  “My optimism is based on watching the fundamental changes that companies are making to leverage advances in technologies.”

“Outmoded institutional structures can’t survive,” she added, in reference to a recent National Academies of Science and Engineering report, Beyond Bias and Barriers, which said that “outmoded institutional structures” hinder the access and advancement of women in academia.

In academia, the career track proceeds from an undergraduate degree in a scientific or engineering field to graduate school, and then through the process of achieving tenure.  This could leave a woman no opportunity during her childbearing years for a family, confronting her with a stark choice that men generally do not face.

In private industry, however, “many people now work for companies from offices in their homes,” said Allen.

The global reach of multinational companies also can lead to greater opportunities, Allen said.  The companies have research laboratories in many countries, and “the careers of strong technical leaders and scientific experts in these companies often involve international interactions, responsibilities and assignments.”

“Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat depicts the new capabilities that are leveling the technological playing field across countries,” she said, but “will this leveling concept make a difference across cultures, ethnic groups and genders?" And will the gender-based inhibitors to women's success in science decrease around the globe?

Allen is optimistic: “I believe [these new technical capabilities] are already making a difference for women. I hope I am right and that what is happening now is just the beginning of a gender-neutral playing field where women can succeed as equals.”

Asked about her experience mentoring younger women in computing and engineering, Allen said mentoring “is exceedingly important to the success of an individual and an organization.”

“My mentoring style is quite informal, usually one-on-one and face-to-face,” she said. “I mostly listen, ask questions, and, together, we arrive on an action plan if that is required. I also do a lot of advocacy for my protégées, especially women and those from other cultures who aren’t very good at tooting their own horn.

“Internet-based mentoring programs now add a whole new dimension to mentoring," she said. "They can enable networks of people to share learning experiences and technical resources that greatly increase opportunities for success.” (See related article.)

She has learned a lot from being a mentor, Allen says, “particularly about cultural differences in handling situations.”

She said she “can also become totally outraged when bias of any sort impacts someone.”

Originally from New York state, Allen grew up on a farm and saw her career choices “as nursing or teaching,” she said. “That was just fine” since her mother was a teacher, Allen added, but an eighth-grade math teacher inspired her interest in mathematics. “Most of us can think of a teacher who made a huge difference for us,” she said.

For additional information, see Women in the United States.