Honoring Women's History Month in tech

Here's a look at some of the issues and opportunities shaping the experiences — and future — of women in tech and education.
Written by Nate Delesline III, Staff Writer

Women's History Month originated from International Women's Day, a celebration whose history began more than a century ago.

In 1908, suffragettes came out in numbers to march the streets of New York City, demanding better pay and voting rights. A few months later, nearly half a million women would gather in London in a protest known as "Women's Sunday," marching for the same goals. (Women in the UK got the right to vote in 1920; white American women got the vote in 1928. Universal voting rights in the United States only date to 1965.)

Two years later, in 1910, one hundred women from 17 countries met for the International Socialist Women's Conference. Here, they unanimously agreed to support an international women's day. Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland first celebrated the event in 1911. The United Nations began recognizing the celebration in 1975.

International Women's Day is March 8

The origins of International Women's Day — and, by extension, the month-long observance — are social and political.

Today, International Women's Day is considered a time to honor women's accomplishments and talents while also calling attention to ongoing inequalities. Each year, the UN chooses a theme for International Women's Day. This year's focus is gender equality for a sustainable tomorrow.

Women's History Month began as a weeklong event. 

In 1978, a county-level commission in California organized a Women's History Week celebration. From there, the movement for an annual time to honor and celebrate women's history grew and spread across the nation.

Within two years, Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation to name the week of March 8 as National Women's History Week. In 1987, Congress designated March as Women's History Month. 

Each year, the National Women's History Alliance chooses a theme for the month's celebration. This year's theme is providing healing, promoting hope. The theme "is both a tribute to the ceaseless work of caregivers and frontline workers during this ongoing pandemic and also a recognition of the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope throughout history," the alliance said.

Where do women stand in the tech world?

As of last year, an estimated 331.4 million people live in the US. Just over half — 51% — are women. About 57% of America's women were in the workforce in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Not only are women working, but they're also studying. Women received 57% of bachelor's degrees in 2019. And yet, only 21% of computer science bachelor's degrees went to women that year. 

Indeed, women were more than twice as likely to work in education or healthcare than in a computer or tech-related job, according to BLS data. In 2020, just 11% of women in professional and related occupations had a job in a computer or engineering-related role. 

In tech, the scales still tip toward men. For example, 48% of men had a computer or engineering-related job. To look at it from another angle, women represented just 18% of chief information officer positions in America's 1,000 largest companies in 2019.

Black frame around a white background with text that says: In 2019, 18% of CIO at America's 1000 largetst companies were women.
Tori Rubloff/ZDNet

Not only are men better-represented in tech companies, but they're also better-represented in the workforce in general. About 69% of men were in the labor force in 2019. Women reached a high point of 60% participation in the workforce in 1999. 

The pandemic has not helped this trajectory. In the pandemic era, women have typically left their jobs more often than men. As one Associated Press report noted, women usually take on more household and family responsibilities. And when forced to choose, some women are left with no options but to sacrifice their careers for their kids and families, especially in the wake of daycare and school closures.

For women in tech, however, the jobs — and salary potential — are there, even when leadership roles are not. 

Tech jobs, pay, and growth

Although women in tech are underpaid compared to men, "computer science has the smallest difference in median earnings between men and women," according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Women in computer science earn an average of $79,223 versus $82,159 for men.

In overall full- and part-time employment, women earn only 84% of what men make, according to a 2020 analysis by the Pew Research Center. 

Equal Pay Day, another symbolic observance that often falls in March or April, recognizes how much further into each new year women must work to equal what the average man was paid the previous year. The Department of Labor also has a data visualization tool. It allows you to compare women's and men's earnings for 350 jobs.

While women have ground to make up in terms of equal pay, one bright side is that the federal government predicts that employment in computer and information technology jobs will grow 13% from 2020 through 2030. That's faster than average for all occupations.

However, women remain underrepresented in tech leadership, holding just 28% of top positions

Good news for women in tech

Looking at data alone can prevent people from seeing what's going right in the world. Here are three achievements from the last year that show positive changes for women in technology:

  • Women gained leadership roles: 44% of companies had at least three women in executive leadership in 2021. That's up from 29% in 2015. Because senior managers have such a large influence on a company's culture, structure, and focus, having even one woman as part of the leadership team is a positive trend.
  • Women gained visibility: As one example, six women gave keynote presentations at CES 2021, and seven will speak in 2022. This annual trade show, which highlights the newest products and technologies in consumer tech, calls itself "the most influential tech event in the world." Speakers at CES 2022 included Sue Bai, chief engineer of Honda, and Asha Sharma, chief operating officer of Instacart.  
  • Women gained startup funding: Startups with female founders excelled financially in 2021. Startups with women at the top raised more than $40 billion through September of that year. That's almost double the investment in companies founded by women in all of 2020 and 2019.

Expanding opportunities for women in tech

Teams and organizations that prioritize diversity are stronger and healthier. Diversity also expands an organization's innovation, deepens its talent reservoir, and boosts innovation. 

Here are three actions you can take to expand opportunities for women in tech:

Hire and mentor women

Do you make hiring decisions for your organization? Consider involving a hiring firm that specializes in diversity. Next, once you've got women on the team, be deliberate about mentorship and creating promotion opportunities. As Forbes puts it, "it isn't easy to find your footing when your peers don't look like you and haven't faced the same challenges." 

Make women feel welcome

According to a recent survey, 72% of women in tech said they worked at a company with a pervasive bro culture. No one wants to be "the only" woman, person of color, LGBTQ person, or person with a disclosed disability on their team or in the organization, so consider hiring in cohorts to better distribute the burdens of representation. One way to create a sense of belonging is by developing spaces where people can connect through common experiences and interests. Establishing employee resource groups is a good starting point, as is recognizing and honoring holidays dedicated to diversity and inclusion.

Model work flexibility

Most employers embraced flexibility when the pandemic hit. But the added flexibility also blurred lines between work and home, according to a recent analysis by McKinsey. Even when flexible work arrangements are available, people don't always use them out of concern it could negatively affect their career. The report suggests that one way to respond is for leaders to embrace and model workplace flexibility in their own lives.

This article was reviewed by Angelique Geehan

Angelique geehan smiles while leaning against a tree.

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have with themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender binary-nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange, a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including the National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup, the Health and Healing Justice Committee of the National Queer and Trans Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, QTPOC+ Family Circle, and Batalá Houston.

Angelique Geehan is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. 

Last reviewed on February 7, 2022.

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