When the modern-day computer was unveiled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, female pioneers played key roles in its birth.

Begun as a World War II project to calculate complex ballistics trajectories, the revolutionary Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) ultimately led to our digital age of smartphones, touch screens, tablets and so much more.

Unfortunately, the work of six brilliant women programmers was virtually erased from history. Even many hardcore computer or history aficionados would have trouble naming Kay Mauchly Antonelli, Betty Bartik, Frances Holberton, Marlyn Meltzer, Frances Spence and Ruth Teitelbaum.

Sadly, their hidden legacy continues in today’s business world, where 85 percent of heads of technology (Chief Technology Officers and Chief Information Officers) are men.

Overlooked and outnumbered

More broadly, it’s estimated that women hold only about one quarter of all U.S. tech jobs despite making up more than half of the U.S. workforce and receiving the majority of graduate degrees each year.

There is no denying that there are many high-profile women leaders at technology companies, such as Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), Susan Wojcicki (CEO of Youtube) and Ginni Rometty (CEO of IBM). 

What is less recognized is that there are wonderful success stories of women technologists leading technology organizations: CTOs like Gerri Martin-Flickinger (Starbucks), Nancy Quan (Coca-Cola), Padmasree Warrior (formerly at Cisco and Motorola) and Lisa Schlosser (Thomson Reuters FindLaw). 

There are also exciting new technology startups headed by women. Indeed, AlleyWatch, one of the most prominent organizations focused on the tech industry around New York, has named five women in the Top 10 NYC Tech Influencers for 2019.

We need more, though.

The fact remains that society is leaving money on the table by not encouraging, mentoring and promoting more skilled women into tech leadership roles. U.S. national data shows women significantly lagging behind men in post-secondary computer science enrollments over the past 40 years.

This isn’t due to a lack of interest. Data shows that girls become most interested in technology at age 11, but that interest often wanes during the teenage years. Research from the National Center for Women & Information Technology attributes this to many causes, including irrelevant curriculum and teaching styles that dissuade collaboration.

Things don’t get much better in college, where men typically outnumber women by a four to one ratio in computer and information sciences courses. This can result in a lack of a support network for women, leading many to choose a different career path.

A lack of opportunities in school has a direct impact on the low numbers of women CTOs, which is an especially prevalent problem among startups. According to research from Silicon Valley Bank, even in startups with at least one female founder, only 10 percent have a female CTO. If a startup doesn’t have a female founder, that number falls to 6 percent — the CTO role is far and away the C-level role where women are the most underrepresented!

Changing perspectives

There remains an “old boys” faction who say there’s no problem in technology. In their view, women simply don’t want to work in tech, and that’s why men have 75 percent of all jobs and 85 percent of leadership roles.

We call that bullocks. As an example, we point to progressive institutions like Carnegie Mellon University and Worcester Polytechnic, a STEM-oriented university, that have implemented more inclusive programs and cultural changes, including women’s mentoring. As a result, both have significantly boosted first-year computer science enrollment for women; 48.5 percent at Carnegie and 43 percent at Worcester.

The “old boys” are the same types who once discouraged women doctors. Yet today, women outnumber men in medical school enrollments and are taking on more and more leadership roles in the medical field. The same can be done for technology careers.

The more women who study computer science, the more who will fill the talent pipeline and rise to the essential position of CTO.

Having more women in technology leadership roles is a vital catalyst for attracting more women into the field through role modeling and breaking down the “brogrammers” culture that so often creates barriers to talented women. 

But in reality, the change needs to start even earlier — not just at universities and poly-techs, but at high schools and even middle schools. By providing equal opportunities to all students, the likelihood of getting more women into CTO positions will greatly increase.

Real-world applications and benefits

Recently, one of this article’s co-authors’ firm Rosenzweig & Co. was hired to fill a CTO position for a leading North American business. Quite frankly, Rosenzweig uncovered a dearth of women candidates. There were some great ones found through the firm’s deep dive research strategy, but it needn’t be that challenging in 2019.  

Study after study – hard data from prestigious universities like Harvard to strategy firms like McKinsey & Co – show that women in leadership roles add essential diverse perspectives that ultimately increase corporate profits.

Indeed, a recent study of 22,000 global firms found that going from having no women in corporate leadership (C-suite positions) to a 30 percent female share boosted net margin a full percentage-point — and that translates into an average 15 percent increase in profitability.

In 2019 it is widely recognized that there are many women who are immensely talented CEOs and CMOs. But business leaders cannot overlook the equally powerful impact that can be made by a female CTO. When technology is so pervasive in our lives and women represent the majority of consumers, it makes perfect practical sense for corporations to open their eyes to this issue. 

Of course, merely talking about promoting opportunities for women to become CTOs isn’t enough. Many companies are already taking action and fostering careers for the CTOs of the 2020’s. Unacast, a human mobility data company in White Star Capital’s portfolio, recently grew its engineering staff to 42.9 percent women by making a concerted effort to change their hiring processes and culture.

Such women could very well be CTOs of the next generation of startups. 

Forward-thinking business owners would do well to consider what they are doing to create a future with more female CTOs. It could make all the difference for their brand in the long run.


  • Lylan Masterman is a General Partner at White Star Capital, an international VC firm. Lylan is based in New York and has a long-standing interest in promoting women in tech leadership.
  • Jay Rosenzweig is Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights Board, a member of the Board of the BlackNorth Initiative, and CEO of Rosenzweig & Company.