The First Women in Tech: 6 Pioneers to Celebrate

14 Mar 2022




Statistics suggest that just 19% of the tech workforce are women, with this number even less for Black, Hispanic (3%) and Asian women (5%). Moreover, 77% of tech director roles are filled by men, and just 5% of leadership positions are held by women.

For women in these positions, the statistics often remain grave; a Women Who Tech investigation found that 70% of women in tech say they have been treated differently at work due to their gender, compared to 11% of men in tech.

Despite this gender gap, women have played an instrumental role in the development of tech over the last 300 years. And as the largest players in tech will continue to help close the gender gap in the year ahead, with the proportion of women in technical roles expected to increase, women will no doubt continue to play a crucial role in the next 300 years of tech developments. 

This week, we’re looking back at some of the first women in tech to celebrate their legacies, and to inspire upcoming and future female tech talent.

  1. Ada Lovelace
  2. Grace Hopper
  3. Katherine Johnson 
  4. Sister Mary Kenneth Keller
  5. Karen Spärck Jone
  6. Dame Stephanie Shirley

1. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

Ada Lovelace is often considered as the world’s first computer programmer, after her detailed and elaborate annotations on “Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine” proposed that the Analytical Engine — considered the world’s first computer —  could be programmed to compute Bernoulli numbers. Her annotations are often considered as several early “computer programmes.”

Lovelace’s vision of a machine that could also process musical notes, letters and images, anticipates modern computers by hundreds of years. Indeed, although the Analytical Engine remained a vision, Lovelace’s notes became one of the critical documents to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.

The early programming language Ada was named after her, and the second Tuesday in October has become Ada Lovelace Day, on which the contributions of women to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are honoured.

2. Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Grace Hopper was an American computer scientist, US Navy rear admiral and one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer — the first all-electronic digital computer. 

Hopper was also responsible for the first computer compiler, a program that translates written instructions into codes that computers read. This led her to co-develop the COBOL, one of the earliest standardised computer languages.

In 1973, Hopper was named a distinguished fellow of the British Computer Society, the first and only woman to hold the title at the time. In 2016, Hopper was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

3. Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

Katherine Johnson was one of NASA's human "computers" and an unsung hero of their early days. She hand-computed the trajectory of the first manned launch and, later, calculated the precise trajectories that would let Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969. Johnson also played an instrumental role in the space shuttle program.

Hidden Figures, the book and Oscar-nominated Hollywood film, tells the untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.

President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. “In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender” says Obama. “She showed generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars.”

4. Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1913 - 1985)

Sister Mary Kanneth Keller was the first woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in computer science (she actually came close to being the first person ever, but the first man to earn the degree accepted earlier that same day!). 

Later, Keller went on to help develop the BASIC programming language (Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), a general-purpose, high level language that helped broaden computer programming into non maths and science fields, transforming the world of computer science as a result. BASIC allowed anyone who could learn the language to write custom software.

Her work also paved the way for what we now understand as the information economy – a key driver of wealth creation.

5. Karen Sparck Jones (1935 - 2007)

Karen Sparck Jones is responsible for the concept of inverse document frequency (IDF), a technology that underlies most modern search engines.

Her work since 1990 has been on document retrieval, including speech applications, database query, user and agent modelling, summarising, and information and language system evaluation.

Her achievements resulted in her receiving a number of prestigious accolades such as the BCS Lovelace medal for her advancement in Information Systems, and the ACM Salton Award for her significant, sustained and continuing contributions to research in information retrieval.

6. Dame Stephanie Shirley (1933 -)

Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley is a pioneer of information technology (IT), and now understood as one of the UK’s leading philanthropists.

In 1962, she founded a work-from-home contract programming company exclusively for women called “Freelance Programmers” that eventually employed over 8,500 people, and was later valued at $3 billion. 

“It really started as a crusade for women,” Shirley explains. “Freelance Programmers was not designed to make money. I wanted to have the same opportunities – for me and other women like me – as men had in the commercial world.”

“Freelance Programmers” were responsible for programming the black box for the supersonic Concord, and were instrumental in helping develop software standards, management control protocols, and other standards that were eventually adopted by NATO.

Dame Stephanie is often known as “Steve” as, “after writing literally dozens of letters, introducing [her] company’s services, and getting absolutely no reply whatsoever”, she began to write exactly the same letters as Steve Shirley to get responses. 

“Steve” and her employees pioneered the idea of women going back into the workforce after a career break, and promoted flexible work methods, job sharing, profit-sharing, and company co-ownership — notions well ahead of their time. 

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