11 Key Women in the History of Tech

11 Key Women in the History of Tech

Technology is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, but for a long time, it was dominated by men. Women have been working in tech for as long as the field has existed, yet some still ask, “Do women belong in the technical areas of the workforce, especially STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?”

History of women in work

Throughout history, women have fought hard to have equal opportunities and pay in the workplace. In the industrial revolution (1760–1840), women started working in factories and other industrial settings, but often for low wages and exploitative roles. During the world wars, some countries such as the U.S. allowed women to join the workforce when the men had gone to fight. Women took up various positions, including factory work and support roles in the military. In tech, women worked as programmers, operators and engineers. On the other hand, countries like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union constrained women to their traditional gender roles and ended up not utilizing the abilities and potential of almost half of their population in such demanding times. As a result, they were not able to sustain economic growth and meet the demands of the war efforts like their women-inclusive counterparts.

Women have since then fought hard for equal opportunities and pay, which is not yet a reality in every part of the world. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most inspiring women in tech (in no specific order) and how they’re breaking the glass ceiling in this male-dominated field.

Female icons in the history of tech

1. Ada Lovelace — the first programmer

Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) was an English mathematician who is considered the first computer programmer¹. She wrote a detailed program for Charles Babbage’s Analytical machine. Charles Babbage was fascinated by her intellect and analytical skills. He called her “the Enchantress of Number”². Even Michael Faraday, the scientist who invented the electric motor, was a fan of her work³. The U.S. Department of Defence named the language Ada² after her in the 1980s, in recognition of her contribution to scientific computing.

Ada Lovelace’s translator’s notes to M. Menabrea’s memoir (Credit: Nate Smith)²

2. Dame Stephanie Shirley — founder of Freelance Programming, philanthropist

Dame Stephanie Shirley, originally Vera Buchthal, was rescued from Nazi Germany when she was 5 by the British in 1939. She was placed in foster care where she had to attend maths classes at a boys' school since the subject was not taught at her girls' school. In the 1950s, she went on to work at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, where code-breaking WWII machines had been built⁴. There, she built computers from scratch and wrote code in machine language⁵. She attended night classes for six years, graduated with an honours degree in mathematics, and married physicist Derek Shirley in 1962⁴.

Frustrated by the glass ceiling she constantly encountered, she quit her job and founded Freelance Programmers – a tech company of women, staffed and managed by women. Shirley’s motivation was not money, but to create equal opportunities for women like her. She started the company at her kitchen table with a capital of only £6⁵. This was at a time when software was not exactly a sellable product; it came with the hardware for free. Her husband suggested she use the family nickname “Steve” to navigate the male-dominated industry so that no one realised he was a she until she was already through the door. She henceforth became known as “Steve”, and her correspondence to potential clients became known as “letters from Steve”.

Freelance Programmers remained predominantly a women’s company for 13 years until the Britain Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 forced them to let the men in⁵. The staff worked remotely from home. The company almost went under in the recession of the 1970s⁷. The company grew rapidly, employing thousands and it eventually went public in 1996, making Dame Stephanie very rich and over 70 of its staff millionaires due to Steve’s co-ownership structure. By the year 2000, the company was valued at almost $3 billion. The supersonic Concorde’s black box was programmed by Shirley’s business. She and her staff also contributed significantly to the creation of software standards, management control methods, and other norms that NATO finally embraced⁵.

She received numerous awards for her outstanding contribution to tech, and she was named one of the 100 most influential women in the UK as well as one of the top 100 practising scientists in the UK⁵. She later retired at the age of 60 to focus on philanthropy, charities and causes that she is passionate about, including autism⁷.

Dame Stephanie Shirley (Credit: IEEE Computer Society)

3. Katherine Johnson — pioneering NASA mathematician

Katherine Johnson (1918–2020) was an African-American mathematician. From a young age, she was passionate about mathematics and geometry. She started high school when she was 10 years, went to college when she was 15, and graduated with the highest honours at 18¹⁰ in 1937. One of her professors created a geometry class just for her. She went on to teach Maths at a black public school in Virginia⁹. She enrolled in a Maths graduate program at West Virginia University, but she left early to raise a family.

In 1950, she was hired as a “computer” at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was at the time hiring black women to solve Maths problems. NACA became NASA in 1958. She mainly performed and checked calculations for flight tests⁸. She became the first female author of a research report in the Flight Research Division.

“We needed to be assertive as women in those days — assertive and aggressive — and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be,” ~ Katherine Johnson⁸

The Space Race began in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, man’s first satellite. Shortly after the Soviet Union put the first man — Yuri Gagarin — in Earth’s orbit, the U.S. launched Alan Shepard on a suborbital flight. Johnson was tasked with calculating Alan Shepard’s path. Around this time NASA had started using IBM’s vacuum-tube-powered computers. However, they were unreliable and prone to blackouts⁹. During the Friendship 7 mission to Earth’s orbit about a year later, the astronaut John Glenn requested that Katherine Johnson rerun the same equations programmed into the computers by hand. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” Katherine Johnson remembers him saying⁹. In 1969, she also helped calculate the trajectories for the Apollo 11 mission, which put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon⁹. She developed backup procedures that helped land the Apollo 13 mission safely after their craft malfunctioned⁸.

She later worked on the Space Shuttle and Landsat. She also authored or coauthored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986 after 33 years at NASA. Unlike the white astronauts who were publicly idolized, Johnson’s contribution remained fairly unknown to the public until the release of the movie Hidden Figures in 2016. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour. She passed away in 2020 at the age of 101. NASA dedicated the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center in her honour¹⁰.

Katherine Johnson (Credit: Britannica)

4. Safra Catz — CEO of Oracle

Born to Jewish parents who survived the holocaust, Catz was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts. She got a law doctorate in 1986 from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked in investment banking before joining Oracle in 1999 as a senior vice president. She was determined and ambitious, and she joined the Oracle board in 2001. In 2004, she was appointed co-president as well. In the years that followed, she progressed through the company’s levels and forged a good friendship with Larry Ellison, Oracle’s founder and then CEO.

Under Catz’s leadership, Oracle made over 130 acquisitions and mergers over the next decade. This includes People Soft in 2005 for $10.3 billion, Hyperion Corporation for $3.3 billion in 2007, BEA Systems for $8.5 billion in 2008, Sun Microsystems for $7.4 billion in 2010, Acme Packet for $2.1 billion in 2013, MICROS Systems for $5.3 billion in 2014, and NetSuite for $9.3 billion in 2016. Sun Microsystems is best known for developing the Java Programming language and the Solaris Operating System. NetSuite is considered the largest acquisition Oracle has made in its history¹¹.

Catz served as the company’s CFO and took over as CEO in 2014. She was named the 12th most powerful woman in business and the 16th most powerful entrepreneur in 2009. She was elected to Walt Disney’s board of directors in 2017¹¹.

Safra Catz, CEO Oracle (Credit: thewaltdisneycompany.com)

5. Gwynne Shotwell — president and COO of SpaceX

Gwynne Shotwell is an American born in 1963. She graduated with a Bachelor’s and Masters in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Northwestern University²⁷. She worked at the Aerospace Corporation for over ten years, where she held positions in project management and space systems engineering. She worked on areas such as conceptual small spacecraft design, space shuttle integration, and reentry vehicle operational risks. She was motivated to actively assist in building spacecraft, so she became the director of Microcosm, a low-cost rocket manufacturer for the U.S. Airforce²⁷.

In 2002, Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) met briefly with Shotwell and later called her to encourage her to apply for the vice president of business development position. Shotwell joined SpaceX as its seventh employee just 3 months after it had been founded²⁷. She had a key role in securing investment from NASA to create the Falcon, a reusable launch rocket in 2008²⁴. Following the Falcon’s successful entry into orbit in 2008, NASA gave SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to create a vehicle that could dock with and deliver supplies to the International Space Station²⁷. In that same year, she was made president and COO of SpaceX, which entailed running the day-to-day operations including sales, marketing, manufacturing, launch operations, legal government relations and finance. The Falcon made 100 more launches, generating over $15 Billion in revenue for SpaceX²⁴.

Under Shotwell’s leadership, SpaceX became the first company to successfully launch orbit and recover a spacecraft, send a spacecraft to the international space station (ISS), send a satellite into orbit, and send astronauts to ISS²⁵. Shotwell also oversaw the first relaunch and landing of a used orbital rocket and the first reflight of a commercial cargo spacecraft²⁵. Shotwell serves on the SpaceX board of directors, the California Space Authority board of directors and the Polaris Industries board of directors. She is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Shotwell also serves as the President and COO of Starlink, a subsidiary of SpaceX that deals with satellite web services. She has authored dozens of papers on a variety of space-related topics. Shotwell has assisted in raising more than $1.4 million for STEM education programs that have reached thousands of students.

Gwynne Shotwell (Credit: Sspi.org)

6. Susan Wojcicki — CEO of YouTube

Susan Wojcicki is a Polish American who studied history and literature at Havard University. She later got a master's in Economics at the University of California and an MBA at the UCLA Anderson School of Management in 1998. She wed Dennis Troper in the same year, who is currently Google’s Director of Product Management. The two rented out their garage to Larry Page and Sergey Brin to serve as offices for their newly founded Google Inc. Google was then just a few nerds with a leased garage space, only a few investors, and a slim chance of success. At the time, Susan herself was working in marketing at Intel.

In a matter of months, Susan joined Page and Brin as their 16th employee; the first marketing manager. She was 4 months pregnant at the time, and she became Google’s first employee to go on maternity leave. Susan came up with innovative and successful marketing ideas for Google. She was responsible for Google Doodle, which is the alteration of the logo on Google’s homepage to commemorate events, holidays and special figures. She helped develop Google Images and Google Books. She also led the development of AdSense which is currently the largest ad display network. In addition to that, she managed other Google advertising and analytics products including Adwords, Google Analytics, and CPC (cost-per-click).

In 2005, three Paypal employees started YouTube with $11.5 million in financing. It started to compete with Google Video, which Susan headed at the time. She recommended and ultimately managed the acquisition of YouTube for $1.65 billion. She was named the “most important person in advertising”. In 2010 she was promoted to senior vice president overseeing ad products, and in 2014, she became YouTube’s CEO. She went on maternity leave for the birth of her 5th child the same year.

“Rarely are opportunities presented to you in a perfect way. In a nice little box with a yellow bow on top. ‘Here, open it, it’s perfect. You’ll love it.’ Opportunities — the good ones — are messy, confusing, and hard to recognize. They’re risky. They challenge you.” ~ Susan Wojcicki¹³

She published an essay titled “How to Break Up the Silicon Valley Boy’s Club” in Vanity Fair in 2017. In the same year, a male engineer at Google wrote an internal memo claiming that there are biological causes behind gender inequality in the tech industry. Wojcicki recounted having to explain to her daughter that there are no biological reasons why there are fewer women in computing in an opinion piece she wrote for Fortune. The piece also emphasized the value of paid maternity leave.

Under Wojcicki’s tenure, YouTube has grown to 1.8 billion monthly users. YouTube has also released major products including YouTube Gaming, YouTube Music, YouTube Premium and YouTube TV. Wojcicki was ranked no. 6 on the Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women¹³. Wojcicki is a mother of 5, who values work-life balance and has demonstrated that it is possible to be a parent and a CEO at the same time. YouTube has had some struggles over the years, from upset regulators to social critics and irritated users. In 2020, YouTube achieved a record-high revenue of $19.77 billion. Wojcicki attributed YouTube’s success to the platform’s numerous content creators¹⁵.

Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube (Credit: successstory.com)

7. Sheryl Sandberg — COO of Facebook

Sheryl Sandberg is an American who studied economics at Havard University. She worked as chief economist at the World Bank. In 2001, she joined Google Inc. She was in charge of the development of Google AdWords, which placed ads on search result pages, and AdSense, which placed ads on websites contracted with Google. These two items significantly contributed to Google’s earnings and helped the firm make a profit¹².

Sandberg was recruited as Facebook’s COO in 2008. She developed an advertising strategy for Facebook that helped the company become profitable. Her close partnership with Zuckerberg was regarded as a key component in Facebook’s success. She is one of the most powerful women in tech, and also the author of the best-selling book “Lean In”, which encourages women to take control of their careers and strive for leadership positions¹².

Sheryl Sandberg (Credit: Forbes)

8. Kimberly Bryant — founder and former CEO of Black Girls Code

Kimberly Bryant is an African American born in 1967. She graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and minors in Computer Science and Maths. In 2011, she founded Black Girls Code (BGC) after realising her daughter was interested in coding and there weren't enough resources to learn how to. BGC is a non-profit organization that teaches girls of ages 7–17 about coding and tech. It has taught over 3000 girls how to code in the U.S. and South Africa. It provides an experience similar to Havard Summer Camp. Her vision was to give black women access and exposure to STEM. She also sits on the board of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) K-12 Alliance, an organization whose goal is to provide girls all around the world with access to inclusive computer education. Bryant has received many awards, including the Jefferson Award for Community Service, POLITICO Women Who Rule, Smithsonian Magazine’s American Ingenuity Award for Social Progress, and Pahara-Aspen Education Fellowship. In 2013, she was recognized as a White House Champion for Tech Inclusion¹⁶.

“I really wanted to . . . create a future for my daughter that would be a little bit different than mine.” ~ Kimberly Bryant¹⁷

Unfortunately, in 2022, BGC had some board room trouble and Kimberly Bryant was kicked out of the company she founded. Legal battles between her and the company are still ongoing.

Kimberly Bryant (Credit: uschamberfoundation.org)

9. Reshma Saujani — founder and CEO of Girls Who Code

Reshma Saujani is an Indian American lawyer, activist and politician who was born in 1975. Reshma attended the University of Illinois, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Yale Law School. In 2010, she entered the political scene as the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. She was miserable at her well-paying job as counsel to an investment firm. She described the move to run from office as the bravest thing she ever did in her life, despite losing badly, managing to get only 19% of the votes¹⁹. She even wrote the book Brave Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder. During her campaign for Congress, she visited local schools where she observed the gender gap in computing classes firsthand. This inspired her to raise $100 million and start the nonprofit Girls Who Code (GWC) in 2012. It provided camps and programs that taught women how to code free of charge. GWC has taught over 300,000 girls through direct in-person computer science programs¹⁸.

She also held the position of Deputy Public Advocate for New York City. She was recognized in Fortune World’s Greatest Leaders, Fortune 40 Under 40, Forbes Most Powerful Women Changing the World, and Fast Company 100 Most Creative People, among others. She is also the author of Women Who Don’t Wait in Line: Break the Mold, Lead the Way and Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work. Her TED Talk “Teach girls bravery, not perfection” garnered over 5 million views¹⁸.

In 2021, Reshma created the Marshall Plan for Moms to promote policies valuing women’s work both in and out of the home. It received a lot of backing and was successfully introduced into Congress at the federal level¹⁸.

Reshma Saujani (Credit: Good Morning America)

10. Fei-Fei Li, co-director of Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute

Fei Fei Li was born in 1976 in China. Her parents then moved to the U.S. In 2017, she graduated with high honours from Princeton University with a B.A. in physics. She also studied Computer Science and engineering at Princeton. In addition to that, she was awarded a PhD in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). She served as the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) from 2013 to 2018. She took a sabbatical from Stanford from 2017 to 2018. During this time, she joined Google as its Vice President and Chief Scientist of AI/ML at Google Cloud.

Li is renowned for her research in AI, machine learning, computer vision, cognitive neuroscience, computational neuroscience and AI in healthcare. She has published over 300 peer-reviewed research papers in reputable journals and conferences. The ImageNet project, which has transformed the field of large-scale visual recognition, is among her most well-known works²⁰.

In 2017, she co-founded the non-profit AI4ALL which aims to increase inclusion and diversity in AI education. Li was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2020, 2021, and 2021, respectively. She has received numerous awards for her work in AI. She was an independent director on the board of Twitter from 2019 to 2022 when Elon Musk purchased the company and removed all directors, leaving him as sole director²⁰. She is currently the chairperson of AI4ALL and the co-director of the Stanford Institute of Human-Centered AI²¹.

Fei Fei Li (Credit: Forbes)

11. Grace Hopper — U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, pioneering programmer

Grace Hopper is an American born in 1906. In 1928, she graduated with a degree in Maths and physics from Vassar College. She received her master's in Mathematics and PhD in Mathematics and Mathematical physics from Yale. She later began teaching at Vassar College. In 1943, she joined the U.S. Navy Women's Reserves. She was commissioned as a lieutenant and assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance’s Computational Project at Havard University in 1944. There, she worked on Mark I, which was a large-scale automatic calculator by IBM, an early electromechanical computer. She wrote the 561-page manual for Mark I, which was the first computer manual. She coined the terms “bug” and “debugging” in computing²². She also worked on Mark II and Mark II computers under Navy contracts.

Working on top-secret calculations for the war effort, Hopper and her fellow officers at the Harvard lab computed rocket trajectories, made range tables for new anti-aircraft guns, calibrated minesweepers, and did calculations John von Neumann used in developing the plutonium bomb dropped in Nagasaki²².

In 1949, she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Corporation where she worked on the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC), the first commercial electronic computer. In 1952, she developed A-0, the first compiler. A-0 translated mathematical code into machine-readable code, which was a crucial step towards creating modern programming languages. She coined the term “compiler”.

In 1953, Hopper proposed the idea of writing programs in words, rather than symbols, but she was told her idea would not work.²²

Hopper’s team then developed Flow-Matic, the first programming language to use regular English word commands, unlike FORTRAN or MATH-MATIC which used maths symbols. She made computers more accessible to people without an engineering or math background by making programming languages more user-friendly. In 1959, Hopper took part in the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL) which developed the Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL). Hopper encouraged its adoption and in 1970, COBOL became the most widely used computer language in the world²².

Hopper, nicknamed “Amazing Grace” by her subordinates, served for nineteen years in the military. She was the oldest commander still serving in the U.S. armed forces when she retired from the Navy as a rear admiral in 1986 at the age of 79. She lectured at the Navy Reserve and several universities. She also organized many workshops and conferences to expand the community of programmers²³ and encourage businesses to adopt new technology²².

She received more than 40 honorary degrees. Many scholarships, professorships, awards, and conferences are named in her honour. She was the first woman and first American to be elected as a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973. President George Bush presented Hopper with the National Medal of Technology in 1991. She died in 1992 and was buried with full military honours. In 1996, the U.S. Navy commissioned the USS Hopper, a guided military destroyer in Hopper’s honour²². In 2016, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honour, in celebration of her “lifelong leadership role in the field of computer technology” by President Barack Obama²².

Grace Hopper (Credit: Military.com)


I could go on and on. But now reader, I pose the original question to you, “Do women belong in tech?”. The evidence does speak for itself.

Unfortunately, try as it may, this article is unlikely to change society’s biases against women in tech overnight. Despite their invaluable contribution to tech, society is more likely to view the above-mentioned female trailblazers and tech icons as outliers in the statistics people use to come up with stereotypes. Some may even view them as “less feminine”. In sociology, the symbolic interaction theory suggests that people’s perceptions and behaviour are influenced by social norms and expectations. An excellent example of this tendency is students unconsciously viewing male professors more favourably and routinely rating them higher, even if the male and female professors are equally qualified and effective, because of the unfounded notion that women are not as competent as men in professional settings²⁶.

Throughout the history of tech, women have defied all odds, broken through the glass ceiling, and gone on to achieve their aspirations!

No one could sum it up better than Dame Stephanie:

“I see each unknown tomorrow as an opportunity. We waste time being afraid, when what we should really fear is wasting time” ~ Dame Stephanie

Read about the top ten women in tech leadership in Kenya here.

A lot of effort went into making this article detailed and accurate. Caught a mistake? Please let me know in the comments.


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