Women are an ever-growing part of the tech landscape, but inequality in pay and opportunities persists.
There are many systemic problems that need to be addressed for women to achieve greater equality in tech, including gaps in STEM degrees, inequality in pay and workplace culture issues.
In addition to breaking out the latest statistics and key trends, this article will detail some of the challenges and success stories of women in the tech workplace -- including several high-profile female CEOs, entrepreneurs and developers.
Women in tech statistics and trends
Here's a short list of some of the more prominent issues facing women in tech:
Gaps in STEM degrees
Opportunities in tech begin with education, and there is a big disparity between the college degrees earned by men and women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). At the undergraduate level, women's participation in science and engineering depends on the specific field of study.
While women earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees in psychology, biology and social sciences, they only earn 22% of the degrees in engineering, 20% in computer science and 21% in physics, according to research by the National Girls Collaborative Project.
Researchers at Cornell University found that gender differences in high school students' occupational plans -- where they see themselves at age 30 -- have a large effect on gender equality in STEM outcomes in college. Among high school senior make students, 26% planned to enter STEM or biomed occupations, compared with 13% of female students. And 15% of female students planned to enter nursing or similar health occupations, compared with 4% of male students.
Women are a clear minority in the STEM workforce, though U.S. Census data shows significant gains from 8% of STEM workers in 1970 to 27% in 2019. The percentage is slightly higher in the federal workforce where women hold 29% of STEM positions. However, a study by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission released in July 2022 found that women were 40% less likely to work in engineering, 33% more likely to work in math and over 90% more likely to work in science than in technology sector jobs.
Engineer and STEM advocate Caitlin Kalinowski believes more needs to be done to achieve gender equality when it comes to careers in STEM.
"Letting college women and schoolgirls know that they have a future in these industries is a huge piece of this," Kalinowski said in a statement. "More importantly, if girls seem hesitant to enter a STEM field, it's imperative they receive positive mentoring."
In 2020, women made up 28% to 42% of the mostly Silicon Valley GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) workforce, according to self-reported data from Statista. More broadly, only 31% of IT employees are women, according to Gartner research.
Race and ethnicity
In addition to gender discrimination and inequality, the tech industry has work to do to achieve greater parity in racial and ethnic hiring.
Of the 25% of women working in tech, Asian women represent only 5%, Black women 3% and Hispanic women 1%. The same 2020 compilation of women in technology statistics found that Black women make up only 18% of the entry-level jobs in tech, while white women and men garner 30% and 35%, respectively.
A report by the National Science Foundation found that the share of both underrepresented minority women and men receiving science and engineering bachelor’s degrees (software engineering and hardware engineering) has steadily increased in recent years, but they are still underrepresented.
For example, the 2022 EEOC study found that the majority of federal female workers in STEM roles are white (66%). Black women represent about 14.6%, with Asian women coming in at 9.8% and Hispanic women at landing at 6.4%.
While the tech industry struggles to attract more women, retention of those who do enter the field has also been an issue. Many women in STEM careers are more likely to leave within the first years compared with those who aren't in a STEM-related job, according to the Women In Tech Network. Reasons for leaving include a lack of role models and significant personal sacrifices they've had to make. About half of these women still use their technical skills at another company.
Workplace culture drives turnover and significantly affects the retention of underrepresented groups, costing the industry more than $16 billion annually, according to a survey of tech workers by The Kapor Center and Harris Poll. A third of the women surveyed said they left their jobs to seek better opportunities, while nearly the same percentage said they left due to unfair environments.
Women in STEM jobs face a number of challenges, according to a Coqual study. These challenges include alienation, extreme hours, bias, exclusion and isolation, and leaders not seeing them as having leadership potential.
Workplace culture issues
The #MeToo movement has done a lot to raise awareness of gender inequality issues and harassment in the workplace, but men and women differ on its effect.
Sixty-nine percent of white male founders think #MeToo has had a positive effect, while only 34% of white female founders feel the same way, according to a study by Women Who Tech. The percentage is even lower among women of color founders (24%). In the 2020 study, 44% of female founders said they'd been harassed, and the percentage grew to 65% for LGBTQ+ founders.
One survey of women in tech showed that slightly over half report gender inequality, discrimination, or sexual harassment in male-dominated environments.
To address gender inequality, businesses need to embed diversity and inclusion into company culture from day one. One way businesses can do this is by hiring female leaders early in their inception. It's important that women see female role models in senior roles because it shows an organization values diversity.
Another issue is visibility. Women are often tasked with "invisible work" -- such as day-to-day tasks that maintain the status quo -- and get credit for being diligent, but not strategic. Businesses need to be sure that everyone has equal access to strategic projects.
Lack of representation
There is no question women are in the minority in the tech industry, from the general workforce up through management and leadership roles. A 2020 study by the AnitaB.org Institute found that women make up 28.8% of the tech workforce, a steady increase from the past few years -- 25.9% in 2018 and 26.2% in 2019. The latest study analyzed data on more than half a million U.S. technologists at 51 participating companies. However, at this pace it could take more than 10 more years for women to gain equal representation in tech.
A McKinsey study, "Women in the Workplace 2019," noted that gender disparity can emerge as early as the first promotion opportunity. Women account for 48% of entry-level hires but only 38% of first-level managers.
Another McKinsey report found the number of women of color only make up 4% of the computing workforce and almost no senior leadership roles despite making up 16% of the general population.
Read more here on how diversity hinges on root cause analysis.
Pays gaps for women in tech
Hired.com has been tracking gender disparity in pay among tech workers for several years and hasn’t seen much improvement. In 2017 and 2018, the company found that men were offered higher salaries than women 63% off the time. In 2019 the gap narrowed a bit to 60%, but returned to 63% in 2020.
A survey of 10,000 tech employees in the U.S. found a gender gap in salaries is evident regardless of education. The widest gap is between men and women whose qualifications include "some college," where women reported a median salary of $72,000 and men $107,000. For those with advanced doctoral or professional degrees, the was still a 12% difference -- $144,250 for women and $161,000 for men.
Leadership position gaps
Top level tech positions like CIO and CTO are mostly held by men. Zippia reports that women account for only 18% of the CIO and CTO roles in 1,000 of the largest U.S. tech companies. More broadly, the percentage of women in senior IT leadership positions grew from 21% to 24% between 2018 and 2019, according to IDC. The research firm also noted that in organizations where 50% or more of the senior leadership is held by women there is more likely to be equal pay, higher retention rates and job satisfaction levels.
While evidence of progress, the numbers show women have a small share of IT leadership jobs. Women account for only 16% of senior level tech jobs and 10% of executive positions, according to the "Quantifying the Gender Gap" study by Entelo.
Startups, particularly in tech, can be a key steppingstone for career advancement. When a startup is acquired, the founders are often offered executive positions at the more established acquiring firm. While growing, the percentage of startups in the U.S. with at least one female founder was 28% in 2020 – up from 22% in 2017.
The COVID-19 pandemic's effect on women in tech
The pandemic has been devastating to all segments of society. In the workplace, the effect on women in tech has been especially harsh. Increased child care responsibilities and burnout are among several challenges women in tech have had to deal with during the pandemic, according to a Trust Radius survey of 450 tech professionals. There was a noticeable gender gap in answers to the question of "How has your work life been impacted by Covid-19?" where the top response (57%) among women was, "I feel more burned out at work" versus 36% for men. Another noticeable difference: 43% of women said they had taken on more responsibility at work during the pandemic versus 33% of men.
A 2021 study by Girls in Tech showed a high rate of burnout among women with male bosses in the tech workplace, with working mothers affected the most.
A study by AnitaB.org, published in May 2020, found that female technologists experienced increased levels of job insecurity during the pandemic, with 46% stating they were worried about losing their job, while 21% reported it likely they would lose their job. But despite cost-cutting measures, 81% of the women technologists surveyed said they approve of how their places of employment responded to COVID-19. Making remote work available, flexible schedules and increases in paid leaves were among the highest-rated policies.
The history of women in technology
Women have played a key role in the advancement of technology and computer science since its creation. For example, computer pioneer Grace Hopper devised the theory of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the creation of COBOL -- an early high-level programming language still in use today. Actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr filed a patent for frequency-hopping technology in 1941 -- a precursor to Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth connectivity technologies now used by billions of people worldwide.
As author Marguerite Zientara wrote in her 1987 book, Women, Technology & Power: Ten Stars and the History They Made, the rise of personal computers in the 1980s and the dawn of the Internet Age a decade later saw women gain powerful positions in the tech industry -- including IBM executive Joyce Wrenn and Open Systems co-founder Ann Winblad. While their companies differed greatly, these women shared the basic characteristics of determination, a belief in themselves, high energy levels and a willingness to work hard.
While female CEOs and executives are still very much the exception in tech, there has been progress. One of the most high-profile female leaders in tech is Susan Wojcicki, who has been CEO of YouTube since 2014. She was Google's 16th employee and suggested the search giant buy the wildly successful video site. Her sister, Anne Wojcicki, is cofounder and CEO of personal genomics site 23andMe.
In addition to established companies, there are many female CEOs, developers and entrepreneurs at fast-growing startups. Whitney Wolfe Herd, the 31-year-old founder and CEO of online dating site Bumble, joined the list of self-made billionaires after bringing the company public in 2021.
How to create a future for women in tech
As the tech industry booms along, the hope is opportunities will continue to grow for everyone -- including women who often don't have as broad a network as men in the male-dominated industry.
Here are some ways to open doors for women in tech and help them to advance their careers:
- Provide STEM education at an early age. Traditionally, women have gravitated toward liberal arts degrees. It's important that girls know early on that the door to the sciences is open to them, too.
- Mentoring. Mentorship is a pillar of support. This can be via professional groups that provide a community of like-minded individuals or one-on-one.
- Keep skills relevant and up to date. This can be done by taking certification and university classes, and attending industry conferences and other events.
- Eliminate bias in the hiring process. This can be done by hiring women into leadership roles early in a company's inception, creating longer candidate shortlists when making hiring decisions, and doing blind auditions, where you can see and hear their work, but not actually see the candidate.
- Close the pay gap. If men and women with the same education and skillset are doing the same jobs in a given company, it's time to figure out why that pay gap exists and level the playing field.
- Be proactive. There are always opportunities and problems to be solved. Women should step up, take action and demonstrate accountability.