When it comes to technology, it might surprise you to discover that women are often behind the creation of the very cool gadgets, devices, apps, and services you use every day. While women frequently take a back seat in the annals of tech history, the truth is that they have been key players just as long as men have. Today, estimates show that women comprise 26.7 percent (or less) of the industry.
For Women’s History Month, we’re spotlighting seven of the many impressive women who have forged paths, shaped modern life, and are leading us into the future.
Women Forging the Path
While it’s tempting to think of technology only as it relates to computers, it encompasses multiple professions, including all types of engineering roles. Many of those roles contribute heavily to the technology we know and use today, including telephones, computers, televisions, and much more. By the time the 20th century rolled around, a few brave women were bucking the norm around the globe in a variety of ways.
Lillian Moller Gilbreth, for example, was an American mother, psychologist, and industrial engineer who was the first woman engineering professor at Purdue and, in 1921, the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Her work helped pioneer the formal development of industrial and organizational psychology (the science of human behavior in the workplace). Her work laid the foundation for today’s modern management concepts such as ergonomics, work/life balance, and job placement.
Edith Clarke became the first professionally employed woman electrical engineer in 1922, but ten years earlier, she worked as a ‘human computer’ at AT&T. In that role, she performed long and tedious mathematical calculations alongside other brilliant women.
Edith Clarke was the first woman to earn a Masters of Science in electrical engineering from MIT.
She later supervised computers at General Electric, during which time she invented the Clarke calculator, a graphic calculator that solved line equations ten times faster than previous methods. It was primarily used to solve equations for sending power through electrical transmission lines.
Later in her career, she worked on the design and building of hydroelectric dams. Her expertise helped develop the turbines that generate hydropower at the Hoover Dam today.
Women Shaping Our Modern Life
Our use of modern computers owes a debt to many women. While many are lost to history, others made such huge contributions that they are globally recognized for their work.
Grace Murray Hopper, a mathematics and physics educator pre-World War II, joined the U.S. Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve), also known as WAVES. There, she was tasked with programming the Harvard Mark I computer, also known as the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, to help the military calculate rocket trajectories, calibrate minesweepers, and create range tables for new guns. She also coined the term “bug” to refer to computer problems when her team found a moth inside one of the devices.
Hopper later worked on the team that developed the first large-scale, all-electronic computer and created the first computer language compiler. Iterations of that compiler led to the programming language COBOL, which eventually became the most widely used computer language worldwide.
COBOL programs still run on some modern operating systems and form the basis of object-oriented syntaxes used by corporations such as IBM and Fujitsu.
Radia Perlman has been nicknamed “the Mother of the Internet,” and with good reason. She invented the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) essential to the operation of network bridges; her innovative ideas are essential to the organization of networks and how they move data. More recently, she created STP’s successor, TRILL (TRansparent Interconnection of Lots of Links), sometimes called “routable internet.”
The internet standard can support multiple paths and routing bridges, which is essential to the continued growth and development of the internet. She was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering for her work in internet routing and bridging protocols; she currently holds more than 100 patents and awards related to computer science.
Women Leading Us to a High-Tech Future
It’s not enough to look to the past for inspiration. Sometimes, you just have to be the inspiration that encourages others to take action. These three women have launched mini-revolutions that are now helping women of all ages and backgrounds discover that technology can be a great career.
Kimberly Bryant is a successful engineer who has led others in numerous technical leadership roles for Fortune 100 companies. She was also the founder and executive director of Black Girls CODE, an organization that helps introduce girls of color to technology and computer programming. A self-described nerdy girl, she created the organization when she couldn’t find computer programming learning options for her daughter. Black Girls CODE works to close the digital divide while simultaneously addressing the gender gap prevalent in the tech industry which comprises less than 22% women and only 3% women of color.
Maria Klawe is a prominent computer scientist who is a key advocate for women in STEM fields. Currently the president of Harvey Mudd College, Klawe was formerly the Dean of Engineering and Professor of Computer Science at Princeton and other universities. She works tirelessly to increase female participation in technology fields; her work on Phoenix Quest, a mathematical computer adventure game designed for kids aged 8 to 13, pays particular attention to the interests of girls.
She co-founded the Computing Research Association’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1990; it is still active today. Her unshrinking advocacy for women led to her removal from Microsoft’s board of directors after six years of service, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to recruit and retain more women in the field of computer science. She continues to make research contributions to math and computer science in areas such as human-computer interaction, interactive multimedia for mathematics education, and gender issues in information technology.
Reshma Saujani is an accomplished financial lawyer and author who saw the gender disparity in computing and resolved to help girls understand the opportunities the field presented. She founded Girls Who Code, an organization with a mission to close the gender gap in technology.
Girls Who Code is tackling the decline of women in computer science careers, which reached a high of 37 percent in 1995 but is now hovering at 22 percent.
Through a variety of outreach and partnership options, the organization is on track to close the gender gap in entry-level tech jobs by 2030. Of particular note is the fact that half of the girls the organization serves are from historically underrepresented groups, including Black, Latinx, and low-income backgrounds.
Break the STEM Barrier: 5 Ways You Can Help More Women Enter Tech Jobs
It’s one thing to know that the world needs more women in technology fields; it’s another to do something about it. If you’d like to help encourage more women to look at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields as career paths, here are five ways you can help:
- Support an organization already working on the issue with your time and/or money, such as Black Girls CODE, Girls Who Code, and The National Girls Collaborative Project.
- Work with your alumni association to further women’s STEM careers at your alma mater.
- Bring the National Math + Science Initiative to your community to help reach students of all ages.
- Become a mentor to encourage girls and women into pursuing and succeeding in STEM careers.
- Get involved with the global effort to bring emerging women leaders in STEM from Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East together with their counterparts in the United States as part of a mentorship and exchange program via TechWomen.
Together, we can help more women see STEM as a viable, enjoyable career path.
Are you a woman seeking a chance to network with other women in STEM fields? Check out the Women in Tech Summit, which covers both personal growth topics alongside hardcore tech topics.