Women in Tech: History, Statistics, and Stories

Women in Tech: History, Statistics, and Stories was originally published on Forage.

Women in tech careers have been advancing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for ages. With women’s insights and hard work, the world has grown into a technological marvel early STEM pioneers could only dream of. 

However, women’s existence in the technology space has never been easy, and to this day, there’s a great deal of disparity between men and women across the industry. In this guide, we explore how women have shaped the world of tech and dive into recent statistics of women in technology. And we hear from current women in tech to better understand how this disparity affects women’s lives daily — and how women today can forge their own path in a tech career. 

A Brief History of Women in Tech

Women have been working in tech throughout human history. The women listed here demonstrate not only the prevalence of women in technology throughout history, but also how women have made pivotal breakthroughs across the broad range of subjects in STEM. From pioneering computer programming to propelling the video game industry forward, women’s contributions to STEM are irrefutable. 

19th Century

An early innovator in the technology field was the poet Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace. Upon meeting Charles Babbage (the father of computers) in 1833, Lovelace wrote a series of notes about his early computing machine, the Analytical Engine. One of her notes described an algorithm for the machine, thought by many to be the first computer program. But beyond her invention, she was a forward thinker: she envisioned many applications for computers beyond calculations and questioned humanity’s intersection with technology. 

Early 20th Century

Marie Curie, woman in techMarie Curie c. 1920 / WikimediaCommons

The power of women’s innovation and creativity continued into the 20th century when Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her research and theories on radioactivity. After her first Nobel win in 1903, she broke barriers again in 1911 by becoming the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice, this time in a different scientific field.

Her work in physics and chemistry paved the way for future physicists to accomplish technological marvels, like targeted cancer treatments. 

World War II

With World War II looming, many women stepped up to take over holes in the workforce left by soldiers going overseas, including in areas of research and leadership. Inventor and actress Hedy Lamarr co-invented a groundbreaking radio guidance system for U.S. Navy torpedoes, using frequency hopping to out-smart radio jamming threats by the Axis powers. For her work, she became the first woman to earn a BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award from Invention Convention, an award called the “Oscars of Inventing” at the time. Additionally, her invention formed the foundation for modern Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies. 

Grace Hopper, woman in techGrace Hopper / WikimediaCommons

During the war, Grace Hopper spent her time creating the foundations for modern computer technology while serving as an officer in the Naval Reserves. After earning a Ph.D. in mathematics and mathematical physics, Hopper worked on the Harvard Mark I computer in 1944 and developed a theory for programming languages and an early language called FLOW-MATIC. Her work led to high-level programming languages still used in computer science today. On top of it all, she rose to the rank of Rear Admiral in the Navy, becoming a role model for women in STEM and military careers.

Post-War to Today

After the war, some women left the roles they’d taken on and returned to their jobs inside the home. But with the space race heating up, many women saw opportunities to continue pushing society and the world forward. In June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space and the only woman to have flown a solo mission since. Her efforts helped pave the way for women in astronautics and physics. 

In contemporary times, the impact of women on technology can be seen all around us. For instance, Elizabeth Feinler was in charge of a precursor to Google — the Network Information Center — which made white and yellow pages accessible online and developed domain naming functions like “.com.”

Atari 2600 consoleAtari 2600 console (tinx / Depositphotos.com)

The video game world saw progress in design and programming due to Carol Shaw’s creation of River Raid in 1982 for Activision’s Atari 2600 console. And the user interfaces on phones and computers we all interact with on a daily basis wouldn’t exist without Susan Kare’s work in graphical user interfaces and pixel art. 

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Women in Tech Statistics Today: A Story of Disparity

With such a clear impact on technology and society, how can women’s place in STEM fields be questioned? Ultimately, since Ada Lovelace’s time, strides have been made in balancing the gender scales — the overall workforce now has nearly equal proportions of men and women, and the gender pay gap is (albeit slowly) narrowing. 

However, this progress isn’t reflected in the tech world. A 2019 study by Accenture found that the percentage of women in tech was 35% in 1984 versus 32% in 2018, and research from Women in Tech Network found that women currently account for 35% of STEM employees in the U.S. Women are more prevalent in health care related STEM roles, while areas like engineering and computer science see the lowest proportion of women, according to a 2019 study from Pew Research

But, despite representing about one-third of all STEM workers, women’s wages are consistently lower than men’s. The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) found that while men in STEM careers had an overall median wage of $64,998 in 2020, women earned $59,931. 

So, why the disparity? The unfortunate truth is that women continue to face marginalization and discrimination in the workforce. But even before entering the workforce, the number of women studying STEM is disproportionately lower than men, likely due in part to the understanding that tech is (and always has been) a boy’s club.  

There’s a Broken Rung on the Tech Career Ladder

Since the late 1970s, the term “glass ceiling” has been used to describe how women are barred entry to higher-level roles across various industries. However, the glass ceiling isn’t the true issue. Rather, the career ladder itself has a broken rung. In fact, it may even be missing a rung entirely.

The broken rung analogy describes how women don’t just have a problem becoming top executives; they often can’t even get to the first levels of management. A report from McKinsey shows that, regardless of industry, for every 100 men promoted to management positions from entry-level, only 87 women are promoted. In tech specifically, the numbers are more severe: 52 women move into management roles for every 100 men.

To make matters worse, the NCSES found that in 2021, 65% of women in STEM careers had at least a bachelor’s degree, while only 43% of men had the same level of education. Despite being more educated than their male counterparts on average, the tech industry still leaves women behind on the career ladder. 

Being stuck at lower levels can have real consequences for women in tech, too. The 2022 layoffs that rocked the tech industry affected women significantly more than men — 69.2% of laid-off employees were women, according to Women in Tech Network. And the lack of women in senior and manager-level positions makes them 1.6 times more likely to be laid off than men.  

While some DEI initiatives aim to address the disparity across career levels, the issue may be deeper in some organizations: company culture. If a company’s culture doesn’t acknowledge the broken rung, it’s difficult to solve anything. Unfortunately, the broken rung isn’t recognized across the board — senior human resource leaders are twice as likely as female employees to say that it’s “easy for women to thrive in tech,” according to Accenture. 

>>MORE: Learn how to tell if a company truly values DEI.

Women Face Blatant Discrimination and Marginalization

Regardless of what level of employment women manage to achieve, the discrimination and marginalization they face can be a daunting and deterring factor in women’s career longevity. In a 2022 report from Dice, 48% of women in tech surveyed said they experienced gender discrimination at work. Women in Tech Network’s survey also found that 64% of women in STEM roles say they’ve been spoken over in meetings, and 19% feel their careers and duties are pigeonholed by negative stereotypes against women. 

Not only do these toxic environments cause women to leave STEM careers at a higher rate than men, but they also force women to change things about themselves that aren’t necessary in a professional setting. Most women who face microaggressions at work take steps to change their appearances or code-switch to shield themselves from the abuse. 

Additionally, women in tech are burning out faster than their male counterparts: Dice’s report found that only 16% of women report not feeling burned out, while 22% described themselves as very burned out. On the other hand, 10% of male survey respondents reported feeling very burned out, and 22% said they weren’t burned out at all. 

Many female entrepreneurs have turned to creating startups to begin building a women-friendly tech world. However, the disparity exists here, too. In 2022, only 2.3% of venture capital funding went to women-led startups, Women in Tech Network found. That trend also continued into 2023. Additionally, only 25% of startups are women-founded, but 37% have at least one female board member. 

Women Study STEM at a Lower Rate

Unfortunately, the disparity in tech begins well before the workplace. According to the Women in Tech Network study, only 21% of graduates in engineering and engineering technology are women, and women account for 16% of computer and information sciences bachelor’s degrees. 

However, many colleges and universities are trying to address this difference in STEM education. I’ve experienced firsthand one method colleges are using to solve the disparity: The summer before my freshman year of college, I participated in an on-campus program meant to boost interest and open opportunities in STEM for women and minorities. (I quickly learned that a lab life was not for me!) And while most students in my cohort went on to abandon their STEM aspirations, opting instead to pursue degrees in arts and humanities, it’s difficult to determine the true outcomes of the college’s efforts. 

Some women-led organizations hope to level the playing field by beginning earlier and fostering girls’ interest in STEM at a young age. Dr. Kimberly Clay is the founder of Play Like a Girl, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit responsible for connecting middle-school-aged girls with female mentors and role models across professional industries. Through its in-person and online programs, the Nashville-based organization helps young girls apply skills learned playing sports to career aspirations, setting them up to conquer competitive and male-dominated career paths like tech. 

>>MORE: Discover what STEM career is right for you with our free quiz.

Other organizations, like Girls Who Code, also hope to build a love of technology in young girls’ hearts and empower them to fight for their space in STEM careers. Seeing the way women are treated in tech roles and living with gender discrimination from a young age can prevent young girls from pursuing interests in STEM. But building girls up early on while working to make tech a more inclusive space can help us achieve workplace equality in the future. 

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Real Women’s Journeys in Tech

With such rampant issues in tech, women and girls need strong female leaders across the STEM world to help lead the way and open doors.

Nandita Gupta, woman in tech, product manager at MicrosoftNandita Gupta, product manager at Microsoft

One woman helping to open opportunities for women and those with disabilities is Nandita Gupta, accessibility product manager at Microsoft. After her grandfather lost his eyesight, Gupta had a burning desire to find ways to use technology to help people like him. 

“I started out within STEM as an electrical engineer with a robotics background and eventually worked within manufacturing as a process controls engineer,” says Gupta. “I was the first Indian woman engineer on site, and this was definitely a challenging role being one of the only woman engineers on site.”

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Overcoming the challenges of being the only woman in a workplace and job insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gupta eventually returned to school, pursuing her passion for inclusive design and accessibility. 

Aqsa Fulara, woman in tech, product manager at GoogleAqsa Fulara, product manager at Google

Gupta’s story of making a career change in tech is typical of the women I spoke to. Aqsa Fulara started in a technical consulting role at Google after finishing her master’s degree. 

“Through internal mobility initiatives, I moved into a product role working on Recommendations AI and Looker Studio,” says Fulara, who’s now a product manager at Google in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

Despite the transition, Fulara found ways to push forward by talking with people with experience in similar positions and those who had gone through the same types of challenges. With these groups’ help, Fulara learned “what works [and] what doesn’t work” in her career. 

Although Katie Mendrala, director of data science at 84.51°, started studying hospitality and hotel management, her priorities shifted soon after graduating. 

Marketing had an analytic side that really spoke to me – I’ve always been strong in math and science,” says Mendrala. “Two years after undergrad, I was back in school getting a master’s degree in marketing research and ultimately landed a job in data analytics that evolved into data science.”

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Natalie Onions, ​​VP of Customer Experience at Customer.io, also transitioned into a tech-focused role after starting her career in media. She discovered a deep love for working with customers and helping them solve problems, which led to an interest in technology and SaaS (software as a service). However, once she got into the tech world, Onions found it difficult to find a seat at the table. 

Natalie Onions, woman in tech, VP of customer experience at Customer.ioNatalie Onions, VP of Customer Experience at Customer.io

“I was often the sole female (or one of very few) in a leadership position,” says Onions. “It’s been a journey for me to get to where I am today. And that is the main reason that I am so passionate about making room for other women behind me.”

In a male-dominated industry, tech and STEM women frequently find themselves as the only women in situations and conversations. 

“These conversations and teams make me uncomfortable even though I wish they wouldn’t,” says Mendrala. “I feel like the odd person out, and I put a lot of pressure on myself as if my brain knows that I’m not representing all women in those spaces, but it doesn’t fully realize it.” 

“I’ve had my share of dealing with sexism, as well,” says Gupta. “And this was super challenging as it made me question my place within the tech world.”

Advice for Future Women in Tech

Perseverance and passion for technology can help break down the barriers keeping women from advancing in STEM. It’s not an easy road, but it can pay off financially and begin dismantling the currently broken system. 

“We need the skills that women can bring, such as creativity and different ways of thinking and processing,” says Onions. “There is a space for you!”

Questioning your place in tech is normal — it’s even happened to women well into their successful careers. However, whether you pursue tech, stay in tech, or transition elsewhere, “don’t let anyone else make the decision on whether you choose to stay or leave,” says Gupta. “You belong here in tech, and don’t let anyone else tell you anything otherwise.” 

Find a Tribe

One way to overcome the struggles of working in a male-dominated industry is to build a community around yourself. 

Katie Mendrala, woman in tech, director of data science at 84.51Katie Mendrala, director of data science at 84.51°

“Find a community of people you are really comfortable with who are also in the same field or organization as you,” advises Mendrala. “Leverage this community to help you grow, let you vent, problem solve with, build you up, inspire you, etc.” 

However, Mendrala also says to ensure you find a balance: “People who will be real with you need to be balanced with those who advocate for you.”

Gupta echoes the importance of having a mix of those who can push you and stand up for you. “Build your tribe of mentors and allies and stand up for each other — it’s okay to accept and ask for help and ensure that you’re building a network of allies!”

Know Yourself, Your Skills, and Your Priorities

Remember that you’re also your greatest advocate. You know what you’re truly capable of, and sometimes, you’ll need to look inward and find creative ways to build your career if the company you’re working for isn’t helping you advance. 

“Understand your current skill gaps and skills of the ideal role you want to be, and find creative ways of building those skills,” says Fulara. “Whether that’s learning through courses or [YouTube] videos, or through hands-on projects and experiments.”

>>MORE: Explore the most important skills for a job in tech

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Additionally, when searching for a career in technology, stick to what matters to you. For many women, flexibility and access to mentorship opportunities are critical in their job search. Determine your priorities and find companies and jobs that meet them. 

“My priorities are a company that offers work-life balance, stability, and employs people of integrity in all levels of the organization,” says Mendrala. ” Continue to reevaluate your priorities with your role and the organization’s support of those priorities. Change your situation if it’s not working.” 

Go for It

The most important advice for anyone considering a career in tech is to go for it. The more diverse the tech industry becomes, the more innovations and discoveries can happen. 

“You’ve got to go for it,” says Onions. “There’s been a lot of progress in the tech industry, and while there is more to do, many doors are opening. Try not to allow yourself to be intimidated because the industry needs you.”

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All views and opinions expressed by those quoted in this article are their own and should not be attributed to their employer, past or present.

Featured image credit: Canva

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