The Women Who Shaped the Tech World
The contributions of women in tech are hugely important but largely untold.
Technology has always been - and continues to be – a field dominated by men. However, women have always played a crucial role in tech. The stories of some of these pioneers and current leaders have only recently gained widespread attention. But if women are half of the population why does their tech representation fail to reflect this? The problems that women in tech face can explain a lot of the disparities in not just representation, but pay and other issues. We assembled a panel of current tech leaders to discuss the history of women in tech, and the path forward.
Notable Historic Women in Tech
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was the daughter of famed poet Lord Byron, but she was brilliant in her own right. Lovelace, an English mathematician, became friends with Charles Babbage, the man who created the first computer, which was known as an Analytical Machine.
“The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be.”
“She helped him by writing the first computer programs to run on his Analytical Machine,“ according to Jill Eaton, who has worked in the Information Technology industry over the 30 years, starting as a coder and working her way up to an executive-level within the IT department of a Fortune 500 company. Eaton credits Lovelace with being a visionary who saw what computers could someday become.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was a computer scientist and an admiral in the U.S. Navy. “She worked on the Univac, which was the first commercial computer, and created the first compiler,” Eaton says. “She was also a key player in the creation of the COBOL programming language.”
Annie Easley (1933-2011) was one of the first Black Americans to work as a computer scientist at NASA. “She developed and implemented code that led to the development of the battery used in the first hybrid cars,” Eaton explains.
Gladys West (1930-) was the second Black woman to work at the Naval Proving Ground in 1956. “She programmed the IBM 7030 computer that delivered calculations for a geodetic Earth model, which eventually became known as GPS,” Eaton says.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) was a well-known actress, but she was far from being one-dimensional. Eaton says her contributions are widely viewed as laying the foundation for today’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communications technologies.
Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) was the lead character in the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures. “She calculated trajectories crucial to NASA’s manned spaceflight,” explains Ayodele Odubela, a data science advocate at Comet ML.
Shirley Jackson (1946-) is a physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “She helped develop the technology that enables caller ID and call waiting,” explains Odubela. Jackson is also the first Black woman to earn a doctorate at MIT, and the second Black woman to earn a doctorate in physics in the U.S.
Elsie Shutt (1928-) is a computer programmer who founded a software company when she was not allowed to work from home while pregnant. One of the first women to start a software business not just in the United States, but in the entire world. “She was one of the first women to start a software company, CompInc, in 1958, years before giants like Microsoft (1975) and Apple (1976) were founded,” says Anya Sorokovikova, senior engineering project lead at ASML.
The discoveries and work of these women pioneers helped to shape the tech industry, and they also paved the way for other women. “They showed that women could make significant contributions in a world dominated by men, and served as role models for the women who followed,” says Aimei Wei, founder and senior VP of engineering at Stellar Cyber. “Those who reached leadership positions were also instrumental in bringing other women along with them.”
And their contributions were all the more remarkable considering the societal norms that they were often out of step with. “These women faced far more adversity than their male counterparts in order to contribute to an industry that often silenced them,” Odubela explains. “They worked in a time where it was not only unconventional for women to participate in industry and technology, but public policy lacked regulations that protected them against gender discrimination in the workplace.” (Read also: 5 Women Who Changed the History of Technology.)
We can plot a path of women involved in technology that appears to peak and then decline. “In the 1940’s, women were involved with efforts to decode and encrypt messages during World War II." Eaton explains. In the UK, about 8,600 women worked at Bletchley Park doing this sort of work. Women constituted roughly 63% of the workforce there. Due to the Official Secrets Act, details of the Major contributions that some of these women played did not come to light until the 1990’s.
Eaton continues: "In the 1960’s, women were hired to do the mathematical calculation and programming as needed for complex applications like NASA.”
Kristina Balaam, a security intelligence engineer at Lookout, agrees. “Initially, early programming roles in the 50s and 60s were dominated by women -- to the point where IBM referred to “girl hours” rather than “man hours” because about 90% of programmers and systems analysts were women.”
During the 1970 and 1980s, the rise of personal computing, gaming and GUI interfaces attracted women to technology. “You had people like Heidi Roizen, who incorporated T/Maker (one of the first spreadsheet programs) and became the company’s CEO in 1983,” Wei explains. “I also think of Susan Kare, an artist and graphic designer who did many of the fonts and interface elements for the original Macintosh in 1984.”
The period would prove to be somewhat of a golden age of women in technology. “The number of female Computer Science majors peaked in the mid-80s - around 40% of graduates were Computer Science majors - and has seen a steady decline since,” Balaam explains.
She laments that we still haven’t recovered, and only 27% of computer science degrees were awarded to women in 2017. “The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) found that women still only hold 25% of computing jobs.”
The Decline of Women in Tech
So, what happened after the eighties to start this downward trend? Eaton believes it was a combination of factors. “The 1990’s and 2000 saw the rise of outsourcing computer programming to other countries, and the portrayal of the ‘geek male’ in TV/movies - and this started the decline of women being interested in tech roles,” she says.
Dr. Jo Webber has also seen a rise and a decline that she traces back to WWII and women entering the workforce – and serving in tech roles - while men were away fighting. In fact, her aunt served as a plotter, based out of London. “She was operating radar equipment out of the war offices in London and later Inverness, and after the war, she went on to work for McDonnell Aircraft (now part of Boeing).” However, Webber doesn’t think her aunt would have been afforded that opportunity aside from the war.
And yet, when Webber received her PhD in quantum physics in England in 1988, she says women only made up 14% of the STEM workforce. “I attended a quantum physics conference at Oxford University where I was just one of two women in attendance – and the other woman was the secretary of a man also in attendance.”
And these gender expectations continued to play a role in the 1990s. For example, in 1992, the American Association of University Women criticized toy manufacturer, Mattel, for releasing a Teen Talk Barbie who was programmed to say selected phrases, including, “Math class is tough.”
And, as recently as 2018, when the annual Consumer Electronics Show was in Las Vegas, someone had the “bright” idea to fly in stripper robots to perform that week at a Las Vegas Strip Club. The club’s manager said he thought it would attract the women attending the conference.
Sorokovikova believes that gender stereotypes still play a role in the number of women in tech companies. “Women are still expected to have a portion of their lives dedicated to family matters as compared to their male counterparts, often leading to missed opportunities in the workplace,” she explains. “Other harmful generalizations such as women lacking the tough skin or emotional rationale necessary to compete in the world of tech can be discouraging when applying for a position or promotion.”
Odubela agrees that women in tech are treated differently. “They are disproportionately asked to do more administrative and soft-skill professional work outside of their normal tasks,” she says. “Many women in tech are also dealing with work environments where they are silenced, not taken seriously, or not fairly recognized for their contributions.”
And a part of not being recognized includes not being given opportunities to be a part of the decision-making process. “The biggest issue I see at the moment is a lack of gender diversity at the table,” says Janet T. Phan, global technology consultant and founder of Thriving Elements, a nonprofit that connects girls to STEM mentors. “As a female in tech, there’s often a need to prove yourself and to earn the credibility for that seat, whereas for many men, that credibility already exists when you show up.”
And fewer women in tech means fewer women who can be role models for future generations. A 2017 survey by Microsoft found that in Europe, girls are interested in STEM subjects, but by the age of 15, they lose interest. A 2018 Junior Achievement survey of American girls found that only 11% wanted a STEM career. In 2019, the number dropped by 2 percentage points.
It may be that messaging needs to change. “I believe that women leaders in technology need to shift the message they share with young women and girls about technology from being computer science or coding oriented to tech careers being for everyone, ” Phan says.
“There are a plethora of career paths and different skill sets needed in tech – project management, cyber security, legal, to name a few that aren’t coding.” She believes that expanding the definition of a tech career can make it more appealing to women.
Another key to attracting young women coming into tech careers: mentorship. “I can tell you from experience that mentors have provided access and opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have had and can be life changing.” In fact, Phan says the mentorship impact was so profound that it led to her creating an organization to pair young women and high school girls with STEM Mentors. (Read also: Women in Tech Entrepreneurs: Resilient, Intuitive and Paying it Forward.)
But there are also other issues facing women in tech. “A non-exhaustive list of challenges include women founders get less funding and smaller valuations than men, women don’t get hired as much, and there is a pay gap (in the US),” says Malaika Paquiot, VP of product at K4Connect.
And these problems don’t operate in a vacuum. It’s a microcosm of problems that women face. “What we see playing out in tech is how society values women and their contributions,” she explains. “So the sexism - plus racism for non-White women, plus homo- and transphobia for LGBTQIA women - that we see in larger society is also reflected in tech.”
And Paquiot believes there will be fewer women in tech as long as companies aren’t incentivized to close the gender gap. “California’s ‘Women on Boards’ law is an example of what it looks like when gender representation is mandated,” she says. “When it’s required, then hiring practices change to seek out women to move them into the pipeline.”
Recent Prominent Women in Tech
The numbers may look dismal, but there are women in tech who refused to be defined by statistics. (Read also: The Future of Women in Tech.)
For example, Webber has been the CEO of four businesses. InnaPhase Corporation is a software solution provider to pharmaceutical and biotechnology markets, Energy Solutions International is a software technology for the energy sector, Virtual Piggy is a fintech company coined the “PayPal for kids” by Forbes in 2012, and Spirion is a cybersecurity company. “My latest venture is Pod, a networking app designed to introduce people online but connect them in-person, and Pod recently acquired Million Women Mentors and STEMConnector,” she says.
And she’s not the only woman in tech who is forging a path, not only for herself, but for other women as well. Sorokovikova points to Susan Penfield, chief innovation officer at the nearly 27,000-person technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. “Besides overseeing all of the company’s next-generation technology advising for both commercial and government clients, she is focused on increasing female representation among her staff and encouraging female students to pursue STEM careers,” Sorokovikova says.
“Over the last 25 years, Susan has gone from transitioning clients from mainframe computing to Windows to focusing on how her clients can use AI and quantum computing and became one of the most prominent female tech leaders along the way.”
One person who stands out to Kathleen Hyde, chair of cybersecurity programs at Champlain College Online, and an information technology/information security consultant, is Ann Chow. “She is the CEO of AT&T Business, a prominent woman in tech, both by virtue of her position, but also for the work she has done to elevate women in the industry.”
Hyde says Chow has created the opportunity for women to network within the organization. “AT&T Business encompasses the company’s tech offerings, including – but not limited to – 5G, mobility, Cloud, and cybersecurity.”
Eaton believes it’s important to recognize the accomplishments of Radia Perlman. “She created the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) that made it possible to build massive networks using Ethernet by creating a mesh network of layer-2 bridges and then disabling the links that aren’t part of that tree.” And Eaton explains that this was a building block of the internet. Perlman was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014 for her work. She holds more than 100 patents.
Another woman on Eaton’s list is Fei-Fei Li. “She is currently a professor of computer science at Stanford University and co-director of Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute and the Stanford Vision and Learning Lab.”
A person who stands out to Paquiot is Angie Jones. “She is a (Black) master inventor with 25 patents, a founder, educator, and speaker.” Not only is she an expert on test automation and testing strategies, but Paquiot says she’s also a leader in her field.
Paquiot’s second choice is Andrea Delgado-Olson. “She’s the founder and chair of Native American Women in Computing, and collaborated with Google and Udacity to create an Android Basics course using her native language, Miwok.”
There are so many other women taking the lead in the tech industry. These are just a few more that our experts mentioned:
- Shamla Naidoo, managing partner and former global CISO at IBM.
- Gwynn Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX.
- Timnit Gebru, computer scientist and co-founder of Black in AI.
- LeeAnn Kemp, founder of Everledger, a startup that makes use of blockchain to enhance verification techniques in the diamond industry, as well as wines and spirits, luxury goods, apparel...even batteries for electric vehicles.
- Jade Raymond, former president of Ubisoft Toronto and a pioneer of women in the video game development industry.
“Women have been in prominent roles in tech for at least four decades,” Odubela says. “It’s a shame that many of these women are still unknown, even in light of significant contributions.”
Tendü Yogurtçu, PhD is the Chief Technology Officer at Precisely. She applauds higher representation of two women in leadership roles. “One is former IBM CEO Ginny Rometty, and also, Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, a non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology.”
However, Yogurtcu says it’s not just up to a handful of prominent role models to lead the charge. “It’s up to all of us - I strongly believe that each one of us plays a critical role in advocating for other women and promoting diversity and women in the workforce initiatives as a business imperative.”