Changing the World: Women’s Impact on Computer Science

Posted on Jan 30, 2024 by Kristin Hassel

Women are making a difference in the world of science every day, and have been for decades. No doubt you’ve heard of chemist and physicist Marie Curie, the pioneering physicist who discovered radium and made invaluable contributions toward the development of cancer treatments. Women’s contributions to tech go back even further – Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century mathematician and poet Lord Byron’s daughter, is considered to be the first computer programmer. 

To celebrate International Day of Women & Girls in Science, we want to take time to recognize some pioneering women in computer science-related fields and their impact on our world. 

The Rise of Women in Tech

Women have helped drive technology forward for as long as the concept has existed, but support for women in the field of science in general is limited. Women going into computer science and other STEM-related fields today have more opportunities today than ever before. Despite this, the rise of women in STEM-related fields declined from 2020–21, primarily due to burnout, the gender pay gap, and a perceived lack of interest. 

With a little help from tireless advocates for women in tech, these numbers are again seeing an upswing. Let’s take a look at ways colleges, companies, advocates, and more are helping combat the decline of women in technology.

Combating the Decline of Women in STEM-Related Fields

Women represent only 28% of employees in STEM-related fields worldwide. Three major ways that organizations are helping to reverse the slight decline in women pursuing a career in science are providing scholarships for women studying or planning to study a STEM-related field, igniting a passion for science in young girls, and supporting women currently in STEM careers.

Thousands of scholarships exist from those provided by private organizations and nonprofits to state and federal funds. We’ve provided a few below with brief explanations of each, but hundreds more exist. 

Scholarships for Women Pursuing STEM-related Fields

  • Science Ambassador: Full tuition scholarship for women/those identifying as women studying or planning to study a STEM-related field. (Provider: Cards Against Humanity)

  • Women At Microsoft: A scholarship of up to $20,000 awarded to a high school senior with a 3.0+ GPA who is studying/planning to study a computer-related field. (Provider: Seattle Foundation)

  • SNC Women in STEM: Maximum $7,500 scholarship awarded to a high school senior with a 3.5+ GPA who is studying/planning to study a non-medical STEM-related field. (Provider: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

  • Society of Women Engineers (SWE): Varying amounts awarded to women/those identifying as women studying engineering, technology, or computing who hold a 3.0–3.5+ GPA. (Provider: Society of Women Engineers)

  • Women in Aerospace (WIA) Foundation: Maximum $5,000 scholarship awarded to women with a 3.0+ GPA studying engineering, math, or science-related fields. (Provider: Women in Aerospace Foundation)

  • The support doesn’t stop at providing resources to help women pursue a degree. It also extends to garnering interest in STEM at a younger age and supporting women as they navigate their careers. Multiple foundations and organizations provide services that encourage girls and women to consider careers in computer science and beyond. Their goal is to help women achieve their tech goals, whether that’s building a new VPN for Linux, developing groundbreaking code, finding new uses for AI, founding health-tech companies, and everything in between.

    Foundations That Empower Women to Pursue STEM-Related Fields

  • Educate Girls US: Strives to empower girls by eliminating the barriers that prevent them from accessing education and educational resources.

  • Girls Who Code (GWC): Works to close the gender gap in STEM-related fields.

  • Association for Women in Science: Aims to reduce job discrimination, lower pay, and professional isolation for women in science-related careers.

  • National Girls Collaborative Project: Brings varying organizations together to encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.

  • MentorNet: Pairs women and minority professionals who are already established in their fields with those just starting out to provide effective and empowering mentorship.

  • 15 Notable Women in Computer Science

    This was not an easy list to create, so many women have impacted the world of computer science, and more innovators are born every day. Frankly, listing them all would be quite a feat! We went back over the last two hundred years to choose some pioneering and innovative women in the field of computer science who fit the 2024 International Day of Women and Girls in Science theme — inspire inclusion.

      🖥️ Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)

    Unofficially credited as the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace helped draft plans for what was essentially the world’s first computer. The machine was called the Analytical Engine and was created by her friend and colleague Charles Babbage. Lovelace created the programming applications that allowed the machine to accurately perform computation tasks.

    Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated internationally on the second Tuesday of October each year. On a fun, personal note, her father was famous poet and satirist Lord Byron. She married the First Earl of Lovelace and they had three children.

      🔢 Grace Hopper (1906–1992)

    Critical to the development and popularization of Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), Grace Hopper became the first individual woman to receive the National Medal of Technology in 1991. COBOL is the first standardized computer language for general business use in account, payroll, purchasing, and manufacturing management, and powers millions of businesses and transactions every year. More than 200 billion lines of COBOL are in use, and an estimated two billion lines are changed or added each year.

    Hopper earned her Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Mathematics at Yale in the 1930s. During WWII, she joined the US Naval Reserve, working on a computation project for the Bureau of Ships at a Harvard lab. She earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously for her contributions to the field of computer science.

      🎓 Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1913–1985)

    In 1932, Mary Kenneth Keller joined the Catholic order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She went on to become the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science in 1965. Kenneth Keller is most known for her work developing the Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC). BASIC made coding accessible to those outside of math and science fields.

    After receiving her Ph.D., she founded the Department of Computer Science at Clark University in Iowa. For the next 18 years, she worked to draw more women into the field of computer science, encouraging her students to bring their children to class to make education easier and more accessible for women.

      🚀 Katherine Johnson (1918–2020)

    Mother of three and prominent African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson is most famous for her role in creating calculations for the Apollo 11 and 13 missions. Johnson earned her degree in Mathematics and French in 1937 and is one of the women profiled in the 2016 Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures.

    She was also the lead of an all-woman team that analyzed flight data. In 1953, she joined the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics — today known as NASA. She continued to work for NASA until 1986. She earned the National Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2016 for her impact on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

      🖥️ Jean E. Sammet (1928–2017)

    This pioneer started her career in computer science very differently. Jean E. Sammet originally wanted absolutely nothing to do with computers, being vastly unimpressed when she was first introduced to one. Fortunately for programmers everywhere, she changed her mind, as she was (along with Grace Hopper) one of the key creators of COBOL.

    She went on to write the popular guide Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals and became the first woman to be President of the Association for Computer Machinery. Her mother was also a trailblazer – she was a lawyer in the 1920s when being a woman with a career or education was still considered taboo.

      💾 Dame Stephanie Shirley (1933–)

    Technology pioneer Stephanie Shirley launched her software firm Freelance Programmers in 1962, and it went on to develop the black box flight recorder for the British passenger airline Concorde. In its earlier years the firm only hired women, but later diversified.

    Shirley later founded the Oxford Internet Institute, which is dedicated to how the internet affects legal, social, economic, and ethical issues. Since losing her autistic son and only child, she has dedicated her time to advocating for autism awareness.

      🚀 Margaret Hamilton (1936–)

    Computer Scientist and Systems Engineer Margaret Hamilton led the Software Engineering Division of the Instrumentation Laboratory at MIT. Hamilton worked on software development for Apollo 11, the first successful space mission to place mankind on the moon. 

    The guidance software she developed was adapted to work for Skylab (the first digital fly-by-wire aircraft). NASA even credits her with coining the term software engineering. She earned the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award for technical and scientific contributions in 2003, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in 2016.

      🔐 Radia Joy Perlman (1952–)

    Perhaps inspired by her father (an engineer) and mother (a mathematical and computer programmer), Radia Perlman took up a career in computer science. She went on to invent the algorithm behind Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), which essentially creates the rules for internet traffic. STP ensures a network is configured for any event, so when users or machines call for data, it gets delivered properly.

    To date, Perlman holds 80+ patents. She currently works at Sun Microsystems with a specialization in Network Security. She was named Inventor of the Year in 2004 by the Silicon Valley Intellectual Property Law Association.

      💻 Megan Smith (1964–)

    As the first woman to serve as a Chief Technology Officer in the US, Megan Smith created a White House website dedicated to women in STEM. She served in the White House from 2014–17 and remains a major advocate in the fight for net neutrality.

    She is currently on the advisory board for Tech Job Tours, an organization that connects diverse tech talent with available jobs. The organization hosts events throughout the US each year to draw new talent to careers in technology.

      🤖 Fei-Fei Li (1976–)

    Chief Scientist of AI/ML at Google Cloud and spearhead of Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute (HAI), Fei-Fei Li is an advocate for inclusivity and equitability in AI. Li is also responsible for spearheading the ImageNet project. ImageNet is a database that holds millions of labeled images, providing AI with massive datasets versus individual algorithms for AI to parse — a method that unlocked AI capabilities further.

    In 2019, she received the National Geographic Society Further Award, and in 2023 she earned the Intel Lifetime Achievement Award.

      ☁️ Michelle Zatlyn (1979–)

    As co-founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Cloudflare, Michelle Zatlyn has already accomplished a large feat in the field of cybersecurity. Cloudflare is a leading internet security, performance, and reliability company dedicated to improving internet safety. The company already safeguards roughly 20% of all internet traffic worldwide, boasting 300+ clients from multiple Fortune 1000 companies.

    Zatlyn has previously earned a spot on Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list, as well as the Harvard Dubilier Prize for entrepreneurship.

      🎓 Heather Payne (1987–)

    Named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in 2013, Heather Payne is passionate about two things: education and technology. As the founder of Ladies Learn Code (now Canada Learning Code) and HackerYou (now Juno College), she’s continued to pursue these passions. Payne’s goal is to expose women and girls to coding and technology in general.

    Juno College has helped 10,000+ students via learning boot camps, part-time upskill courses, and free workshops since 2013. 

      🎓 Khalia Braswell (1990–)

    A previous UX Engineer with Apple, Khalia Braswell designed enterprise app experiences. Braswell later became CEO of InTech Camp for Girls, an organization that educates and inspires girls to innovate in the field of technology. Since 2020, the organization has given 1,200+ girls training and mentorship opportunities in STEM.

    Braswell was named one of 2019’s Woke 100 by Essence magazine and is passionate about inspiring women from minority groups to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.

      ♻️ Elizabeth Coulombe (1994–)

    Tero Innovations CEO and co-founder Elizabeth Coulombe helped design and create a device that recycles food waste into reusable plant fertilizer. The appliance is small enough to sit on a countertop or table, and with the press of a button and a couple of hours, it produces the fertilizer. You can program it for specific time lengths depending on the type of waste you’re recycling.

    Tero devices have kept approximately 220k gallons of waste from ending up in landfills. 

      📳 Michelle Yin (1997–)

    The co-founder of DiscZ Music, Michelle Yin, has already had her company despite it only being launched in June 2023. DiscZ Music already had 1.5 million users spanning at least 200 countries. The song recommendation app lets users share new music with others, create and share playlists, and discover new music through recommendations the service provides based on past selections.

    Yin was profiled in Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2023, along with DiscZ co-founder Bobby Pickney. She was also a Software Engineer at WhatsApp (2018–20) and was an intern at Facebook and Google in the same field.

    Celebrating PIA’s Talented Women in Tech: An Interview with Iva Nedeleva

    Private Internet Access VPN is proud to have women in positions throughout our company, from device app development and project management to technical support. To celebrate International Girls in Women and Science Day, we’re excited to share an interview with one of our incredibly talented engineers. We asked Iva Nedeleva, our Android engineer, what made her want to pursue a career in tech and what she loves about it. 

    What does being an Android engineer include?

    It means making sure people can use the PIA client Android phones, so someone with no technical knowledge can go to the Play Store, download the app, and just be able to use it. 

    I define the way things look and function in the app, as well as optimize it — there’s always something we can improve. The most important thing for me is to get the work done in the best possible way. I like to see that things are moving at the pace they should be moving at. I don’t think process should ever be a blocker for progress.

    What did you study to help you get where you are now?

    Computer science, then a Master’s in software engineering, and methodologies of teaching English – part-time teaching taught me a lot about communicating with people.

    What made you want to pursue a career in technology and specifically computer science?

    During high school, I got interested in AI, then I got involved in some projects in college. It was brand new and shiny and I could see so many benefits, like doing virtual reality training for doctors. Today, I can see how computers and phones are helping people.

    I love knowing how things work inside out – it’s in my nature to try and figure out why things work the way they do. When I first saw a computer, I had to know how it worked. You move a mouse and the cursor on your screen moves, and how does that happen? I also thought the internet was fascinating – you could get access to information that no one else had.

    Do you feel like women are fairly represented in hi-tech?

    From my experience, no. However, things have started changing in the last few years. Diversity quotas mean more women come in, but nowhere near the numbers we should have.

    What do you think puts women off of pursuing careers in tech?

    I think people are scared of math. There’s a perception that math is tech, and to work in tech, you have to be excellent at math, but that’s not the case. As long as you can solve problems quickly, that shouldn’t matter.

    There were many women in my master’s course, but most seemed to end up in design instead of on the problem-solving side of tech. I don’t know why that is – maybe it’s seen as more “feminine”? That “girly” element can be applied to everything, though, including software engineering. We should always be looking for the most elegant solutions. The best solutions to problems are the simple ones: neat, clean, and self-explanatory.

    How do you think women in tech are perceived?

    It often looks like women aren’t happy with men’s work in tech, but that’s because they’re pulled away from the code base and put into people management instead. Instead of being able to sit and code, they’re taken away from hands-on problem-solving so are much less involved in building products. Companies don’t benefit from this – bad code is bad code. A lead engineer should be involved in actual engineering. When there’s no understanding between development and management, you have issues.

    Do you have any words of advice for girls thinking about getting into computer science/women pursuing computer science careers?

    Get into it, it’s fun! It’s a great way to express yourself – aside from being a purely technical topic, it’s a very creative process. Writing a beautiful piece of code and sharing it with the world is similar to painting a picture or creating a poem, and I get to know that millions of people have seen and appreciated my work. 

    Celebrating International Women & Girls in Science

    Each year since the United Nations adopted resolution 70/212, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science has been celebrated on February 11th. This year, the theme is to inspire inclusion, with an emphasis on inspiring people to understand and value the inclusion of women in STEM-related fields. When women become inspired to find a place of belonging and relevance in the scientific field it empowers them to accomplish feats that can change the world. 

    I’ve always been motivated by what women have done before men. – Iva Nedeleva, PIA Android Engineer

    The graphic only shows some of the ways that you can celebrate women and girls in science. You can find hundreds more online, and regardless of how you choose to celebrate, know that inclusivity counts – men should celebrate too. Science is meant to be shared; in doing so, we expand its amazing possibilities.

    Women Impact the Scientific World Every Day

    While we primarily discussed pioneering women in computer-related STEM fields, we also want to acknowledge all women working in the vast range of science-related fields. Whether you’re making the internet a safer place, creating new technologies, curing disease, discovering a new energy source, or finding new species of flora and fauna, we see the phenomenal impact you make on our world.