The history of women in technology is complex. Yet, despite their many and often groundbreaking contributions in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the lack of female representation in technology remains significant. It’s also worth serious reflection, especially during Women’s History Month.
Consider, for example, recent survey findings that suggest women represent less than 10% of the software developer workforce globally. Also, a 2022 report from the Women Business Collaborative found that women are underrepresented in C-suite technology roles across public and private companies, never reaching higher than 27% representation.
According to the WomenTech Network website, it will take nearly 133 years to close the gender gap in tech — if the current pace of change in the industry holds. That pace is not picking up, at least for the moment. In fact, a recent report from AnitaB.org found that the representation of women in the tech workforce has been on the decline after several years of growth.
A study from Accenture also found that the proportion of women to men in technology roles has declined over the past 35 years — and that half of women in technology leave the field by the age of 35. The study points to a lack of inclusivity for women in the workplace and in higher-education environments as a major contributor to these trends.
For women in tech, the opportunity to keep driving change is great — and necessary
Women who intend to build a career in technology or are already working in STEM-related fields like computer science or information technology (IT) shouldn’t be discouraged by these stats. The opportunity to reverse these negative patterns is tremendous. And your interest or commitment to working in these areas is crucial to help move the needle on change faster.
For some inspiration and motivation, it can be helpful to look to the past to see just how much has changed for the better for women so far — and to learn about several women whose contributions to science and tech have been nothing short of transformative.
With that in mind, here’s a snapshot look at highlights from the past 200+ years, along with stories about some of the women whose amazing skills, innovative thinking and tenacity helped to shape our modern world. (We only wish we could include them all!)
The mid-1800s saw the opening of many colleges for women. Many of those institutions offered courses in the sciences, inspiring women to pursue careers in science and technology.
However, technical opportunities for women were greatly limited during this time, even for teaching positions. Female faculty members were often forced to resign if they wanted to get married. This made it incredibly challenging for women to maintain and grow a presence in the world of science.
Despite these obstacles, many women of this period refused to set aside their passion for science and tech.
The mathematician Ada Lovelace is one well-known example. She collaborated with another mathematician, Charles Babbage, to develop an analytical engine — a steam-powered device with many of the core features found in modern digital computers. Lovelace is widely credited as the world’s first conceptual computer programmer because of a machine algorithm found in her “Notes” from 1842.
Maria Mitchell and Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Other notable women in science and technology living in the 1800s included:
- Maria Mitchell, who was the first American scientist to discover a comet — and recognized internationally as the country’s first professional female astronomer. Mitchell was also a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Women and the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among other achievements.
- Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who is credited with discovering the Cepheid variables — pulsating stars useful for measuring the distance of objects in the universe. Leavitt worked at the Harvard College Observatory as a “human computer.” Although the “computer” occupation was not well-respected at the time, the term describes someone with outstanding abilities to perform mental arithmetic.
Despite the rise of the suffragettes in the early 20th century, women in math and science continued to face the “spinster” stigma and struggled to secure meaningful work opportunities and recognition for their ideas. However, that didn’t stop many women, such as those listed below, from pursuing their important work.
In her 1926 doctoral thesis The Question of Finitely Many Steps in Polynomial Ideal Theory, Grete Hermann established algorithms for abstract algebra and laid the groundwork for modern computer algebra. Hermann is considered an early contributor to quantum theory.
Grace Murray Hopper
Women were among the first computer programmers in the 1940s — and mathematician Grace Murray Hopper is one standout example. As this 2011 post from the NASA CIO blog explains, Hopper became the third person to join the research team that worked on the IBM Mark I — the computer that heralded the age of the modern computer.
Hopper is also often referred to as the “Grandmother of COBOL,” an early programing language still used today in business, finance and administrative systems. She’s also credited with introducing the phrase “debugging” into our modern tech vernacular. As the story goes, Hopper discovered a dead moth in a computer and taped it into a logbook with the note: “First actual case of a bug being found.”
Another woman innovator whose work impacts our lives today is the actress and self-taught inventor Hedy Lamarr. She was awarded a patent in 1942 for designing, in collaboration with composer George Antheil, a radio frequency-hopping system to prevent enemy ships from jamming torpedo guidance signals during World War II. The U.S. Navy initially rejected the idea; however, frequency hopping later inspired today’s Wi-Fi technology. In fact, Lamarr is referred to as the “Mother of Wi-Fi.”
Katherine Johnson, a mathematician, started her career as a human computer. In the early 1950s, she joined the all-Black West Area Computing unit at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory — the precursor to NASA. Her calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of early spaceflights with crews. Johnson worked for NASA for more than 30 years and, during that time, pioneered the use of computers to automate complex manual calculations.
Data scientist and inventor Valerie Thomas, who also worked at NASA for over three decades, invented the illusion transmitter to send three-dimensional images across distances. She received a patent for her invention in 1980, and scientists today are still innovating ways to use the device in medical and technology applications. Thomas’ work at NASA included managing the development of the “Landsat” image-processing system, the first satellite to send images from outer space.
We will now fast-forward to the 21st century. As we do, we recognize that there are many other women not mentioned above who made a tremendous impact working in STEM disciplines during the 19th and 20th centuries, and who were business leaders in the tech industry as well. We encourage readers to learn more about them by exploring other resources, like this guide from the Library of Congress.
At the start of the 21st century, the number of women earning degrees in the sciences was increasing in all areas except one: computer science. The gender gap that persists in this field today is due, in part, to the historical failure to recognize many women’s contributions to science and the comparative lack of female role models in top universities and the tech industry in general. As noted earlier, the lack of inclusivity in the space is also prompting many women to leave technology careers early, or not enter the tech field at all.
The good news for women in tech today, though, is that they can access a wealth of resources for learning, mentoring, and other professional support and connection that did not exist 20 years ago, let alone two centuries ago. Following are some organizations working for change, including inspiring more diverse women to forge careers in STEM disciplines:
- Ada Developers Academy
- Black Girls CODE
- Girl Develop It
- Girls in Tech
- Girls Who Code
- League of Women Coders
- National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT)
- Women in Cloud
- Women in STEM
- Women in Technology (WIT)
- Women Who Code
As for women top executives in tech, the 21st century has already seen leaders like Marissa Mayer, former president and CEO of Yahoo; Sheryl Sandberg, former chief operating officer of Facebook (now Meta) and founder of LeanIn.org; Ginni Rometty, former CEO of IBM, and Susan Wojcicki, former CEO of YouTube. Note that all these women are still influencing technology and business in some way. And many more women tech leaders are emerging now. (You’ll find just some examples listed here.)
So, if we compare the 21st century (so far) with the 20th and 19th centuries, two things become clear: Women in technology today have more resources and support available than their predecessors could have ever imagined. And they have more, and more contemporary, role models to look to for inspiration.
That doesn’t mean the road is any easier to build a successful career as a woman in technology. There’s plenty of data to show just how tough it is, despite many companies’ increasing their focus on diversity, equity and inclusion and gender equity. But the door to opportunity is certainly open much wider than it was in the past — and there are more options for women to explore and forge different paths if they don’t like where the professional road they’re on now is leading.
Ready to launch a tech career, or take a new direction in your field?
Robert Half is here to help. Explore our current job listings for technology and IT, including data science, web developer and systems analyst roles — and many others. And when you’re ready, you can apply or upload your resume to work with our specialized recruiters.
You can also view Robert Half’s latest Salary Guide to learn about hiring trends in tech, which positions are in high demand, and what types of starting salaries employers are offering for many technology jobs. Click on the banner below to access our free guide.