2021 International Women's Day

Every first opens the door for many

A collage of women’s photographs featuring Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, Junko Tabei and other women.
A collage of women’s photographs featuring Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, Junko Tabei and other women.

In the past year, the world searched for the first woman more than ever before.1

Whether in politics, the sciences, athletics or the arts, women have driven society forward throughout history. Over the last year, the world has looked to trailblazing women who overcame the obstacles of their time, to do what had never been done before.

As firsts, these women stand on the shoulders of countless others – women who laid the foundation but didn't have the same opportunities to break the glass ceiling. Some firsts achieve something spectacularly new; others are receiving a recognition that is long overdue. Collectively, and across the globe, these firsts have created a remarkable legacy for the generations that follow.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the firsts who paved the way, and the many women they inspire.

1:30

Watch the film celebrating firsts and their legacy.

“While it is inspiring to see how far women have come, it is important to remember that there is still a long journey ahead of us. Just as we celebrate the ‘firsts’ from history, we are working to make sure that many follow in their footsteps.”

Lorraine Twohill, Google CMO and Google.org Impact Challenge expert panelist
A woman working in her plant nursery business.
Google.org Impact Challenge

The Google.org Impact Challenge for Women and Girls will grant $25 million to organizations creating pathways to prosperity for women and girls, empowering them to reach their full economic potential.

Women in science

The first woman to win the Nobel Prize

Marie Curie

Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and in Chemistry in 1911, making her the first woman to ever win the prize and the first person to win it twice. In 2020, worldwide search interest for “women in science” hit a 10-year high as women scientists dominated in fields that had historically excluded them.2

A collage of the scientist, Marie Curie.

The opportunities women have in STEM fields today are due in a large part to the perseverance of Marie Curie, who, due to her gender, was not initially considered for the 1903 prize despite her pivotal role in radioactivity research. Curie shared this perseverance with others like the first women astronauts, who fought to be treated with the same respect as their male colleagues, and with countless women who devoted their lives to the sciences, though their work may never be widely recognized.

Women sitting together at a technology career conference.
Women Techmakers

Attend events across the world to learn and connect with women in tech.

The opportunities women have in STEM fields today are due in a large part to the perseverance of Marie Curie, who, due to her gender, was not initially considered for the 1903 prize despite her pivotal role in radioactivity research. Curie shared this perseverance with others like the first women astronauts, who fought to be treated with the same respect as their male colleagues, and with countless women who devoted their lives to the sciences, though their work may never be widely recognized.

As of 2020, just 23 of the 622 Nobel Prizes awarded in the sciences have gone to women.

Despite the obstacles women pursuing careers in STEM still face, their contributions to progress in these fields is undeniable. In 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in developing a genetic engineering technique known as CRISPR. Notably, this was the first time the prize was shared by two women and no men.

“I started working on CRISPR out of curiosity and the opportunity to collaborate with incredible scientists. I hope our winning the Nobel Prize helps women realize that they belong and their work can be honored and have a real impact. Let’s support and mentor the next wave of students and researchers so that they are best positioned to continue making scientific advances that will better our society.”

Jennifer A. Doudna, Nobel Laureate
Teenage girl, Gitanjali Rao, in profile.

See how Gitanjali developed an invention to detect lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan.

From life-saving vaccines to technological innovations, women played key roles in 2020’s most impactful advancements. Özlem Türeci made global news as the co-founder of BioNTech, the German company that partnered with Pfizer to develop the first U.S.-authorized COVID-19 vaccine.

Also in 2020, Gitanjali Rao was named Time Magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year for her work using technology to tackle issues ranging from contaminated drinking water to opioid addiction and cyberbullying. And Google Jigsaw engineers, led by Lucy Vasserman, developed international languages for Perspective, a technology that is used by many platforms and publishers to identify and moderate toxic comments.

These are just a few of the thousands of women around the world whose work in science is not only inspiring a generation of girls but also building a healthier, safer, more inclusive world for all of us. Explore more inspiring stories of women’s impact in science and other fields at Google Arts & Culture.

Worldwide search interest for women in science hit a 10-year high over the past six months.2

Women in business

One of the first women to become a self-made millionaire

Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove)

Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, is one of the first women in the world to earn more than $1 million through the business she founded in 1910, the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Not only did Walker overcome sexist ideas when she built her business, she also battled racial discrimination and played a key role in the movement to end racism, colonialism, and imperialism, setting an example for the many women of today who are fighting the same battles.

A collage of the entrepreneur, Madam C.J. Walker.

Walker is one in a long line of women who thrived in business: from the ambitious women traders of pre-colonial Southeast Asia and Africa, and the pioneering women merchants of 18th-century London, to icons like Helena Rubinstein and Margaret Rudkin (founder of Pepperidge Farm), whose startups have grown into global enterprises today.

These women paved the way for a steadily increasing number of women business owners around the world.

In 2020, the number of businesses identifying as women-led on Google has grown 163% compared to 2019

According to recent data, one in three businesses around the world is owned by a woman,3 and in the U.S., 21% of all women-owned businesses are owned by Black women.4

A woman working at a computer in a modern office space.
Grow with Google

Find free tools and digital skills training to start or grow your business.

While every woman who builds her own business knows hardship, the setbacks that businesses are experiencing due to the global pandemic are some of the worst in the past century. And women, particularly women of color, have been one of the groups most severely affected, with higher rates of job loss and economic strain due to increased domestic responsibilities and racial discrimination.5

“2020 was a good year but with lots of lessons learned,” says Betsy Mikesell, co-founder of Beddy’s, a bedding set company in West Jordan, Utah. “Over this past year, we’ve learned how important having an online presence is.” Fatima Alvarez co-founded Someone Somewhere, a clothing company working with more than 180 artisans in five states in Mexico. “When I think about what keeps me going, it’s really the work we’re doing. I know that we are helping people, and I won’t give up on them,” she says.

Despite the strain of the last 12 months, women’s progress in business gives us plenty to hope for in the future. In January 2021, Germany’s cabinet approved a draft law that would require stock exchange–listed companies with executive boards of more than three members to have at least one woman on those boards, and Janet Yellen was named the first woman treasury secretary of the United States.

Small business owner Fatima Alvarez.

Fatima Alvarez, co-founder of Someone Somewhere

“When women are successful, we are all successful. We need to stand behind them, to make sure that they have the tools to continue the march toward progress and be the leaders they are born to be.”

Bonita Stewart, Vice President of Global Partnerships at Google

Women in sports

The first woman to climb Mount Everest

Junko Tabei

Junko Tabei was a Japanese mountaineer, an author, and a teacher. In 1975, she became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and before her death in 2016, she also became the first woman to ascend the Seven Summits, the highest peak on every continent. Today’s women athletes continue to break new ground, raising the bar for women and men alike.

A collage of the mountaineer, Junko Tabei, in her hiking gear on the mountainside.

Women’s athletic abilities have traditionally been viewed as inferior to men’s, but history is filled with powerful women who pushed the boundaries of their own physical abilities, and in doing so pushed society forward as well. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English channel, beating the fastest man’s existing record by nearly two hours. In 1967, 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially run in the Boston Marathon – even as she fought off a race official who tried to physically stop her.

In the last 50 years, more than 700 women have climbed Mt. Everest, 629 women have swum across the English channel, and 7 women have dunked during WNBA games.

Global search interest for first woman to climb mount everest hit an all-time high in the past year.6

Women athletes today continue to challenge notions of sports and masculinity, and are often treated unfairly due to their gender. In 2020, only two women were listed among the world’s highest paid athletes.7

Still, there are victories to celebrate. In November 2020, the Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as their general manager, making her the first woman to be a general manager in Major League Baseball history. Also in 2020 for the first time ever, a woman – Maya Gabeira – surfed the biggest wave of the season, which was 73.5 ft tall.

The general manager of a Major League Baseball team, Kim Ng, striking a power pose.

Kim Ng, the first woman to be a general manager in Major League Baseball history

“Once the impossible becomes possible, it means anyone can do it. I’m glad to have made that happen for girls.”

Maya Gabeira

Watch the film

1:30
The Google Doodle illustration for International Women’s Day 2021.

Check out this year’s annual International Women’s Day Doodle depicting the journey of female firsts throughout history.

What Google is doing

We are striving for a future where there is equity across the globe, equal opportunities for success in every field, and where women are safe online and in the physical world. Additionally, we remain committed to creating equity in the workforce, and with this in mind, Google has committed to a goal to improve leadership representation of underrepresented groups by 30% by 2025.

1. Based on Google Trends data as of Jan. 2021, when measuring English-language search interest for the phrases “the first woman” and “first woman” Jan. 2004–Dec. 2020.
2. Based on Google Trends data as of Jan. 2021, when measuring Google Search interest Jan. 2004–Dec. 2020. Because “women in science” is a topic, interest is measured across all Google-supported languages.
3. World Bank, 2020
4. American Express 2020 State of Women-Owned Businesses
5. Center for American Progress, 2020
6. Based on Google Trends data as of Jan. 2021, when measuring English-language search interest Jan. 2004–Dec. 2020.
7. Forbes, 2020

Illustrations by Kate Gibb

Related Stories