Women in Technology: Then and Now

By Robert Half on March 7, 2019 at 7:00am

The history of women in technology is as complex as the field itself. While many of the pioneers of computer programming were women, today the lack of female representation in the computer sciences is a hot topic.

However, the future looks bright for young women who aspire to leave their mark in the world of science and technology. Let’s take a look at technical opportunities for women from the 19th century to today.

19th century: all the single ladies

The opening of many colleges for women in the mid-1800s, a number of which offered courses in the sciences, provided a catalyst for women interested in pursuing a career in science and technology. However, technical opportunities for women were greatly limited during this time, even for teaching positions – in fact, according to the University of London Institute of Education, female faculty members were forced to resign if they decided to get married, making it difficult for women to maintain and grow a presence in the world of science.

But many left their mark in the field regardless of these obstacles. Ada Lovelace is one example. This mathematician worked with Charles Babbage on his analytical engine and, due to the machine algorithm in her notes from 1842, is credited by some as the world’s first conceptual computer programmer.

20th century: women become “computers" 

Despite the rise of the suffragettes in the early 20th century, women in math and science continued to face the “spinster” stigma. However, that didn’t stop many, such as Grete Hermann, from making significant contributions to their fields. Her doctor thesis The Question of Finitely Many Steps in Polynomial Ideal Theory, published in 1926, established algorithms for abstract algebra and laid the groundwork for modern computer algebra.

With World War II came two factors that would bring an enormous influx of technical opportunities for women: The draft and the urgent need for advancements in technology.

Several hundred women worked as engineers and technicians on the Manhattan Project, though due to the secrecy of the project, many of their contributions to science and technology (as well as those of their male counterparts) would go unrecognized until after the war.

Women were among the first computer programmers in the 1940s – in fact, they were often referred to as “calculators” or “computers” themselves (Technology and Culture, Vol. 40, No. 3). Grace Murray Hopper, one of the Harvard Mark I computer programmers in 1944, designed a program that calculated the coefficients of the arctangent series and described herself as “the third programmer on the world’s first large-scale digital computer.”

Hopper is also credited with introducing the phrase “debugging” into tech vernacular when she discovered a dead moth in a computer and taped it into a logbook with the note: “First actual case of a bug being found.”

21st century and beyond

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. This gender gap is due in part to historical failure to recognize many women’s contributions to science as well as the comparative lack of female role models in top universities and the tech industry in general – two factors organizations such as LinuxChix are working to address.

For women seeking a career in technology, there are currently plenty of opportunities. The WIT Network is an organization dedicated to encouraging women and girls to pursue technology careers, and help more women gain leadership positions, for example. And as for role models, look no further than the likes of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and IBM CEO Virginia Rometty, two women who are rising to executive positions at prominent tech companies, inspiring more young women to enter the fields of technology and computer science.

Other notable women in the tech sector include a trio of engineers responsible for the mobile redesign at Pinterest, Tracy Chou, Nadine Harik and Jennifer Tsai; Maile Ohye, Senior Principal Project Manager at LinkedIn and frequent conference speaker; and many other tech leaders. 

As tech companies look to solve the talent crisis, many are already implementing initiatives to recruit more women to help them shape the future of the tech industry.


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