When the world’s first programmable computer was introduced in the 1940s, as part of American war efforts, the technology’s potential was obvious—but so, too, was the need to house its systems in a centralized space.
Within months, President Harry Truman had Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) centers built at various military sites and assigned a slew of engineers and researchers to these early data centers. In the decades that followed, rapid innovation brought information technology to the forefront of the economy, and as personal computing became ubiquitous in offices everywhere, users began to rely on servers and data centers around the world. During the dotcom era of the 1990s and early 2000s, the data center became essential to national security, economic output, and online infrastructure. And even while that bubble burst a few years later, the obsession with data storage persisted, eventually giving rise to cloud computing, which now allows organizations to move their data off-site by leasing infrastructure from a third-party partner.
But even as the global cloud computing market reaches an estimated $483.98 billion in value, women make up just 14.2% of its workforce, a disparity that many attribute to the technology’s deep historical roots.
“Women were never exposed to the mainframe data center, because women were not working in that space, or in some cases, at all,” says Chaitra Vedullapalli, the founder of Women in Cloud, a community-led economic development organization working to generate new economic access and opportunity for women in the space.
Cloud, in essence, replaced the local data-storage ecosystem, one that had long been dominated almost entirely by men. So, while newer technologies, like artificial intelligence and blockchain, have emerged as more women enter STEM and therefore have a larger—albeit still unequal—share of women in their workforces, cloud has mostly seen the conversion of (mostly male) professionals who were already operating in the data sector.
“We’ve started to see all the technology move from on premise and onto the cloud because maintaining the infrastructure was so expensive, but until very recently, women still couldn’t enter the industry, because they would need $10 million to $20 million just to build their own server,” Vedullapalli explains. “It wasn’t until Amazon Web Services (AWS) started renting out cloud data centers, where you could build your own solution, that there was a breakthrough.” AWS’s launch in 2006 was soon followed by the advent of other cloud-backed software, including Microsoft Office, Google Cloud, and DocuSign, but it’s only in the past few years that the technology has become equitable and accessible to all.
Even so, the barrier to entry for many women has remained high, both for those looking to join established cloud computing companies and for those hoping to start their own.
“I think a large part of the gender disparity in cloud computing is many women not initially seeing cloud computing as an option,” says Erica Schultz, president of field operations at data streaming platform Confluent. “I’m a huge advocate for women to get STEM degrees, but we also have to show they aren’t required in order to make it in tech.”
Cloud wasn’t an obvious career path for Schultz, who studied Spanish in college, but her interest in enterprise technology nonetheless led her to a job at Oracle, where she stayed for 17 years. She believes that without the skills she attained from a liberal arts degree, that may not have been possible, but that same lack of STEM education is also what makes some women hesitant to enter the cloud space. “Many women don’t see themselves as qualified or a ‘fit’ for the cloud industry, but the things they think are holding them back might just be the skills that help them rise,” she adds.
Rachel Romer, cofounder and CEO of cloud-backed learning platform Guild Education, wasn’t even interested in tech, let alone cloud computing. But when it proved a necessary component to the higher-education and career development marketplace she wanted to build, she encountered a host of unexpected challenges.
“Building Guild required a two-sided marketplace with Fortune 500 employers on one side and higher-ed institutions on the other, and simply put, neither of those environments were very welcoming to a twentysomething female founder,” she recalls. Romer turned to the other side of her business—cloud—hoping to be met with a warmer welcome but once again found resistance. “The biggest barrier to entry for me and for many future cloud leaders—whether women or others from historically marginalized communities—is that there have been decades without proportionate representation.”
In fact, it’s this lack of representation that continues to keep women, even those who do have a background in STEM, from breaking into the cloud space. “It’s very difficult to attract women to work in a male-dominated industry when you don’t have women in leadership roles and an inclusive culture set by the leadership team,” notes Lena Smart, the chief information security officer of MongoDB, a document database provider. “At the end of the day, representation matters a ton.” Smart credits her success to having a strong network of other women executives and cybersecurity leaders, who’ve shown her—and those who’ve come after her—that there is a path for women in the sector. But often, forming such networks can be difficult in its own right.
That’s why organizations like Women in Cloud, as well as individuals and businesses in cloud tech, are working to expand opportunity for female entrepreneurs and professionals to enter the space. Following her own frustrations with founding a cloud-tech business as a woman, not to mention the struggle to recruit female employees, Vedullapalli started Women in Cloud with the goal of creating a billion dollars in economic access for women founders in the enterprise sector so that they could build million-dollar businesses.
The organization quickly brought in coaches and advisers from the industry and fostered strategic partnerships with Fortune 500 tech companies to create a strong network for members. Then, through its Cloud Accelerator, it began working directly with women-led tech startups to co-build, co-market, and co-sell with cloud hyper-scalers—like Microsoft, Google, and IBM—and their distribution channels. In the five years since its launch, more than 80 female-founded companies have graduated from the program, with a total valuation of more than $350 million, but Women in Cloud has also inspired many established tech companies and their leaders to broaden their own efforts internally.
“I’ve seen firsthand how efforts around representation yield better long-term results, with lower turnover for women and members of underrepresented groups, and in turn, better outcomes for the business,” says Preeti Somal, executive vice president of engineering at software giant HashiCorp. With her help, the company has partnered with organizations like PowerToFly and WomenHack to leverage female talent, and it’s increased the number of women in its cloud computing divisions to twice the industry standard and 17 times as high as when Somal joined. “For someone who has been in cloud computing since its inception, this is really meaningful progress.”
Many female cloud-tech founders, too, feel it’s their responsibility to not only serve as role models and mentors to other women in the space but also to create the opportunity they never had. “As a mom to 4-year-old twin girls, my motivation to be an example to others is not just professional, it’s deeply personal, and as I often say, ‘Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not,’” Romer explains. “My hope is that I can demonstrate that women can be every bit as effective as men in building sustainable companies in the cloud that not only solve a business need but also generate real impact in society. But we know that reversing decades-long trends requires consistent, tenacious work.”
In many ways, getting more women through the door is just the beginning; it’s just as important that they be able to thrive in the cloud environment once there. With this in mind, HashiCorp, MongoDB, Confluent, Guild, and many others in the sector have prioritized issues like childcare benefits, caregiving leave, flexible or remote work, and pay transparency, while ensuring their employees have the resources to prosper, regardless of gender.
Women in Cloud, on the other hand, has pioneered policy changes and awareness, including for the 51% certification rule, which stops many female founders who’ve taken money from investors and no longer have majority ownership from accessing opportunities and benefits offered to women-led businesses.
“There’s still a significant gender gap in cloud computing, and the way that women are treated even once they break through leaves a lot of room for improvement,” says Vedullapalli. “So, even though we’ve made great strides for women in cloud, there’s still a long way to go.”