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Women in Technology: Looking Back, Looking Around, and Looking Ahead

Women in Technology

Looking Back, Looking Around, and Looking Ahead

Why This Isn’t Another Listicle

As March — and Women’s History Month — comes to a close, we want to look back at the history of women in tech. We’re not going to talk about individual women — the ‘Top Ten Women in IT History’ — so if you’re looking for a listicle, sorry to disappoint. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of brilliant and influential women in the history of IT, because there are! Here’s a good list of some. Here’s another.

No, the reason we’re not listing individual women is because we don’t want to reinforce a particular way of thinking about women in technology. The role that women have played in IT is much larger than people tend to imagine. These days, it’s easy to think that the history of women in technology is the history of the occasional genius or trailblazer who was able to overcome gender bias and make an impact in a male-dominated field.

But the truth is far more interesting and complicated.

So we’re not going to list individuals. We’re going to look at real history of women in tech, focusing on the emergence of the computing industry in the US. It might surprise you.

The Real History of Women in Tech: Where We’re Coming From

Let’s be honest — the IT world has not, traditionally, been considered a bastion of gender equality. In fact, gender bias has been so prevalent in tech, many people just assume that the computing industry has always been male-dominated, and that the significant contributions women are making in tech today are unprecedented — a testament to ‘how far we’ve come.’

But you know what they say about assumptions …

The truth is, women got the IT industry off the ground in the United States — and did so for the good of the nation. During World War II, with men off to war, it fell to women to learn how to operate the room-sized supercomputers that the U.S. used to crack codes, make ballistic calculations, and work out military logistics — important jobs, to say the least. What few people realize is that during the war and up through the mid-sixties, women made up the majority of the tech workforce.

Computing was, for multiple decades, work done by women. But that was the problem; in society’s eyes, it was women’s work in a derogatory sense of those words. The operation of computers was, prior to the 70s, viewed as unskilled labor, and the women who performed this work were not given adequate respect and recognition for their efforts. Case in point: six women programmed the first electronic computer — the ENIAC — in 1946, but they weren’t even invited to the dinner celebrating the machine’s unveiling and successful demonstration!

What happened next should hardly come as a surprise. To quote Faruk Ateş’ concise summary of the sea change that occurred in the computing industry, “Women invented the field. Then men pushed them out of it.”

By the 1970s, government and industry were starting to catch on to just how powerful the computing revolution was. In her illuminating book, Programmed Inequality, tech historian Mar Hicks discusses how men in power, once they realized that computers were the way of the future, “weren’t going to put women workers – seen as low level drones – in charge of computers.” Maria Aspan also writes about this shift in how computer work was conceptualized: “The advent of the personal computer, paired with the emergence of “geek” culture in the late 1970s, starts to shift perceptions, propagating prejudices that females aren’t good at math and science.”

In short, once the industry that women built became undeniably lucrative, men decided that computers weren’t ‘women’s work’ after all. What a convenient shift in thinking …

So, how should this history lesson inflect our perspective on the present day? Well, for one thing, we shouldn’t perpetuate the narrative that women’s current presence in tech is the start of something great. Because it’s not. It’s the continuation — after an unfortunate interruption — of a rich legacy.

But where do we find ourselves at this juncture in history? Are women truly being empowered to make a triumphant return to the IT world?

How We’re Doing

Like any project that seeks to erase prejudice and systemic discrimination, the pursuit of gender equality in IT is important from a purely ethical perspective: women deserve to be treated equally, and that means whichever field they wish to enter.

But in addition to the glaring moral necessity of eradicating sexism from the tech world, there’s the fact that the entire industry benefits from greater inclusivity and diversity. Consider these research-backed findings:

Women’s voices matter — along with minority voices, LGBTQ voices, and the numerous other voices that make up the human choir — and when they’re left out, we all suffer.

Tracey Welson-Rossman, founder of TechGirlz, sums things up nicely: “Bringing more women into the technology workforce produces a more competitive business environment that can fire on all cylinders and at full capacity.” We cannot emphasize this enough: businesses and industries that respect and welcome women — along with racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ community — benefit from the addition of different voices and perspectives. It’s not that including women won’t hurt technology; it will accelerate its evolution and take it to new heights.

So how are we doing on that front? Statistics paint a complicated picture:

  • The percentage of women in senior IT leadership positions increased from 21% in 2018 to 24% in 2019 (IDC)
  • Women make up 28.8% of the tech workforce, up from 25.9% in 2018 and 26.2% in 2019 (AnitaB.org)
  • 74% of young girls express interest in a STEM field (Girls Who Code)

These numbers, though from reflecting gender equality in tech, are somewhat heartening. However, other statistics suggest that there’s work to be done — and lots of it:

  • In the mid-1980s, 37% of computer science majors were women, but now it’s only 18% (ComputerScience.org)
  • Women working in computer and mathematical occupations earn 82 cents for every dollar made by men (Narrow the Gap)
  • Code written by women was accepted 4% more often than code written by men, but only when the programmer’s gender wasn’t disclosed (GitHub)
  • Women in tech have a significantly higher turnover rate than women in other fields
  • Women-operated VC-backed tech startups generate annual revenues 12% higher than male-operated ones, yet women-led companies received only 2.8% of total capital invested in 2019

To be sure, women are making huge strides in tech, and we are seeing more and more women in prominent leadership roles. But these victories shouldn’t distract us from statistics such as the above, nor the reality to which they point. While certain societal obstacles to women’s involvement in IT have diminished, participation continues to lag and gender biases persist. Things are moving in the right direction, but too slowly, which is why we want to conclude this blog post with suggestions that we can all take to heart in our collective effort to break the bias!

How We Can Do Better

We are at a moment in history where social justice is on everyone’s mind. If we can harness the momentum that the past decade has generated, and keep pushing for change, we can, in this lifetime, see a truly equitable society start to emerge — one in which people are free to be who they are and pursue what they love. But what are some specific ways in which we can break the bias in the technology community?

Mentorship

The power of mentorship is hard to overestimate. Having even just one person in your professional life who has your best interests at heart, and who’s willing to invest time and resources in your growth, can make a tremendous difference to your future success. This holds true of all people, but research suggests that women pursuing careers in tech are in particular need of more mentorship; one survey found that 40% of women consider a “lack of mentorship” to be one of the biggest obstacles to their equal representation in the workplace.

If you’re a woman looking to break into tech or advance your existing IT career, seek mentorship. And if you’re in a position to mentor a female colleague or associate, reach out and see if your guidance would be welcome.

Break Bad Habits

Overt displays of workplace sexism have diminished considerably, largely due to movements such as #MeToo, but gender bias persists in myriad ways, many of which are subtle and fly under the radar. It falls on all of us — men and women alike — to be on the lookout for sexist behaviors at the office. This means not only monitoring others’ behaviors, but your own (yes, even if you are a woman; sexist attitudes and beliefs can be internalized by women as well as men).

If you notice that there’s an issue with women getting interrupted during meetings, say something (there likely is, as research shows that women are interrupted twice as often as men!). If there’s an issue with women not getting full credit for their ideas and contributions, say something. Speaking up isn’t easy, but it’s vital. And remember, calling out sexist behaviors isn’t about shaming or punishing people, but educating them to be better. Accountability is a powerful tool, when used with good intentions and a spirit of compassion.

Show Her the Money!

We mentioned earlier how women-led tech startups attract less investment from venture capitalists than do men-led startups. This is unacceptable, as there is no evidence to suggest that companies with women at the helm are less likely to succeed. So, if you’re in a position to invest in female entrepreneurs, make a conscious effort to do so. And if you aren’t able to invest serious capital, you can show your support by being more intentional in your personal spending; buy from women-led and minority-led companies, because moral support isn’t always enough. Put your money where your beliefs are!

Nurture Early Interest in IT

We learned that 74% of girls express interest in a STEM career, although a much smaller portion go on to achieve degrees in STEM fields. How can we sustain early interest, instead of letting it fade? By nurturing it! We must, as a society, start to actively foster young girls’ and young women’s interest in technology and computing. Research shows that women who took AP computer science in high school were 10x more likely to choose computer science as a major. So let’s make sure female youth feel encouraged and empowered to explore any interest they have in IT, because active involvement in childhood and adolescence translates to participation as an adult. Here’s a list of some great programs devoted to helping female coders develop their talents and break into the tech industry.

A Rallying Call to IT Business Owners

Our readership for this blog consists largely of business owners and decision makers at IT companies. So we want to speak directly to you about the power that lies in your hands to effect social change. Your organization is like a miniature world that you’ve created. So let your ‘world’ be a microcosm of justice and equality — a place where people feel supported and lifted up, and never discriminated against or judged according to stale stereotypes that belong in the dustbin of history.

You might not be able to change society as a whole, but you can carve out your own space that exemplifies our better instincts, and prohibits our worst impulses. In the IT world, which is supposed to be all about forward thinking and reaching new heights, we can’t imagine a more fitting project.