Melinda Gates: The Tech Industry Needs to Fix Its Gender Problem—Now

“If we don't have women in the tech space, we won't even be asking ourselves some of the right questions.”

Melinda Gates
Kris Connor / Getty

Long before Melinda Gates was famous for her philanthropic work, she was yet another woman trying to make it in the male-dominated tech world.

Gates started working at Microsoft in 1987, when it was still a small, scrappy company. But even for a woman with a degree in computer-science and technical skills in her blood (Gates’ father was an engineer) she still had trouble figuring out precisely how she fit into the male-dominated industry.

Thirty years later, many women are still asking themselves that question. Women make up an even smaller share of computer-science majors than they did when she graduated, having fallen to 18 percent from 37 percent in 1984.

With the formation of her own company, Pivotal Ventures, Gates is joining the bevy of voices in tech who are calling for change. I spoke with her about her experience at Microsoft, how she is approaching the issue of gender diversity in the industry, and why creating more inclusive companies is critical for the future.

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gillian White: Our latest cover story delves into problems with gender diversity in the tech industry by asking, why is Silicon Valley so awful to women? How would you would answer that?

Melinda Gates: It hasn’t been welcoming to women now for more than a decade. So it’s something that’s actually been going on for a long time and I don’t think you see it being worked on in a systemic way and I think it needs to be worked on in a systemic way. If that doesn’t get reversed, you’re not going to have young women wanting to go into the field.

White: So why choose this moment to weigh in?

Gates: I’ve always been concerned about this. I think about where we’re going to go with computer science, where we’re going to go with technology. I see machine learning and what it’s doing in different sectors and I start to project forward and I say: Oh my gosh, if today, only 18 percent of computer-science graduates are women and we’re not on a significant rise, think about what that’s going to mean for the future. It’s not good for now for the products we’re designing, it’s a disaster in terms of artificial intelligence. We have to be out doing everything we can to get more women into computer science.

White: What’s at risk if more women don’t get incorporated into computer science and tech?

Gates: I think we’ll have so much hidden bias coded into the system that we won’t even realize all the places that we have it. If you don’t have a diverse workforce programming artificial intelligence and thinking about the data sets to feed in, and how to look at a particular program, you’re going to have so much bias in the system, you’re going to have a hard time rolling it back later or taking it out.

White: As a computer-science major in the 1980s, how did you see the field?

Gates: When I was studying computer science at Duke University, I saw freshman year there were quite a few women in computer science, maybe a third. But by my sophomore year, there were a handful of us. And then there was a handful that persisted. And I didn’t actually mind that, because I was programming with male teams and I was used to that and I had good friends in computer science. When I was in college we thought, just like medicine and law, we’re on the way up—there’ll be more and more of us. But to come out of Microsoft 10 years later and look at the statistics and realize that even then they were headed down—it was just baffling to me.

White: Did you have an experiences at Microsoft that made you understand why women would leave, or that made you want to leave?

Gates: I would say this about working at Microsoft: First of all, I loved it, I loved the products we were working on, I loved the fast paced nature of it. I didn’t always love the caustic nature of it. After about two years there I did think about leaving. I thought, I’m just not sure that it feels like the kind of environment day in and day out that I want. Then I decided that I’ll just be myself for a while and see if that works. And I started to learn that being myself could work. By then, I was a manager and I ended up inadvertently attracting huge teams around me who wanted to act in the same way. And people would even say to me, “How in the world did you recruit that amazing programmer to one of your teams?” and I would say, well I think they just want to work in this type of environment.

White: Prior to that choice, to try being yourself, how were you altering your behavior to fit in?

Gates: I felt like I had to be argumentative all the time. I can go toe-to-toe, I can win arguments. I know how to do that, I know how to play that game, but I didn’t want to live there all the time. And so I learned that there were other ways where we could put the intellectual rigor up front, but we didn’t have to constantly have an argument.

White: You mentioned being an undergrad and feeling like gender equity would increase in the world of computer science. Why do you think that, in large part, hasn’t happened?

Gates: I don’t think anyone knows for sure. We know there are these gaps—what I call loss points—that start all the way at the kindergarten level. Then you see it again at elementary, you see it in middle school, high school, college, and then going into industry. And when you have any kind of pipeline that’s leaky in so many places, you can’t plug just one piece of it. So I think we have to do certain things at each of those.

Part of it is that there’s a bias in schools. I see it even with my kids in school. People might assume that the boys might be good at programming and the girls might not. You have to work on it at each level, middle school, high school. The entry point of computer science at college is a big loss point and I don’t think it’s the silver bullet, but there are points of light where you see certain of those computer-science classes doing a really good job. At Stanford, 90 percent of undergraduates take that class [computer science] now, because they've made changes. Or Harvey Mudd, they’ve made changes. I think in the industry, if women come out of computer science, and they're successful but they don’t feel welcomed, that’s another place you have a huge loss point. Or they’ll go in but they don’t stay in very long.

White: And there’s the funding piece, too right? Where women struggle to get their companies funded at the same level as men.

Gates: Why is it that only 3 percent of startups that get venture-backed funding are run by women? So just the fact that money isn’t flowing and you’re not getting women who are having startups it is, there is a problem there too.

White: So would you consider investing in venture capital?

Gates: I’m certainly looking at it, again it’s not the silver bullet solution. It’s one solution and I think there has to be a whole host of funders that make sure the money is opened to women entrepreneurs. So I’m looking at whether or not that could make a difference and if there’s some investments I would put down. I haven’t made any definitive decisions. One of the things is, I’m really on a learning journey to find out, where are the loss points? We know where they are, but where do we actually have good data, where do we not, and then to test some interventions. To think about places that are having success attracting women in that CS degree in the opening class, how do we spread their best practices to other universities so it’s not just an elite set of maybe half a dozen that are doing really well.

White: What types of data are you most focused on gathering to answer some of those questions?

Gates: To be honest, I think we need not just quantitative data but qualitative data. I’ve done numerous meetings with women in Silicon valley where you qualitatively interview them about what is it like to go into a venture capital firm and ask for money. We know the data say only 3 percent of women’s companies are backed with venture funding are women, so we have that. But it’s the qualitative, hearing what’s wrong when you actually go in. I think a lot of the quantitative data we’re starting to get, we’re going to have to add qualitative to it as well. We have to get some of those “why” questions behind the quantitative.

White: How do you stay motivated about this work, and answering questions about how to make the industry more hospitable to women as more claims of sexism, and discrimination, like those of Susan Fowler, roll in year after year? Does it ever seem like a lost cause?

Gates: I see something like that and it’s on the one hand horrific to read about, and on the other hand I’m saying, “Thank god it’s transparent, thank god it’s out there.” There are reporters who care about this, and these issues are being voiced. These things were happening before and weren't voiced, now they’re coming to light. Now companies will be forced to change or people will be forced to change their behavior. To me, that’s actually a sign of progress. The way I keep my hope up, even when you read an article that can be devastating, is that I meet young women who are learning computer science today and they’re not naive about what they’re walking into. They’ll tell you the hopeful signs: young men who are supporting them, other young women who are supporting them, how much they’re being recruited by companies for summer jobs. There’s so many networking opportunities that didn’t exist back when I was in tech. So you just have to talk to some people who are starting out and that always gives me points of hope and light.

White: Sometimes claims about gender discrimination or leaks about the way women are talked about in the industry make me wonder whether male leaders are really committed to change, or if that’s just public-facing rhetoric. Do you think they are?

Gates: I don’t work in all those companies, but I can say this: I know some of the larger companies are very committed to it. I mean, Microsoft, Facebook—they want great technical women and they are making changes inside their companies. They’re all going after a very small pool of computer-science women. They know their products will be better if they have women on those teams. They want a more diverse team. They also know that once they recruit them, retaining them is hard, because not only is another place trying to recruit them away but they also are learning that those women, if they’re the only women on the team, will report not feeling great about their work. For example, Marc Benioff [the founder and CEO of Salesforce] and what he’s doing in his company. They are being transparent about their numbers, looking at the job categories women were in, looking at whether they’re truly mentoring and sponsoring them, and looking at compensation. They made huge changes. So I know the big companies are serious about it. They know it’s better for their business. But I can’t answer for all the young startups.

White: You point out transparency as an important change. How do you think tech companies are doing when it comes to being forthright about their diversity and inclusion numbers?

Gates: I think the big hurdle has already been crossed in that sense. Transparency is pretty much demanded of big companies in Silicon Valley and in the Northwest in tech. They have to publish. You don’t want to not be on that list. Even a one-percent gain at a Microsoft, a Google, a Facebook on women in tech and tech leadership positions is highly noticed and it actually is a big change in the industry. The thing you have to keep saying over and over and understand is that the big companies want momentum. They know it’s good for their business; you don't have to go convince them anymore.

White: How are you thinking about intersectionality as you pursue gender diversity? Computer science seems like one of these areas where there could be the danger of moving the needle for affluent women, or white and Asian women who are already in the space in higher numbers, but leaving out black women, Latinas, and those who don’t come from backgrounds where computer science is as easily accessible.

Gates: I think we have to reach people where they are. If we only go to the elite institutions that are doing a good job of pulling in computer-science majors, you’re right, you’re going to get a certain type of woman coming in. But if you make sure it spreads to all institutions, institutions that have a very diverse student body, then I think you’ll get diversity more across the board. We have to make sure that while certain universities might be leading the way, you make sure those lessons get to all state colleges, all universities, and, quite frankly, community college as well. You start doing that, then you’ll start to reach a diverse workforce.

White: What do you envision as Pivotal’s role in eliciting all these changes?

Gates: One is making sure we continue to use our voice, not just my voice, but making sure we get men and women. This isn’t just a moment in time where you hear about it for six months and it goes away. That we have a platform of men and women saying this is important and then highlighting the data where we have problems and as real solutions come forward, that those solutions are getting shared out broadly.

Now, what we actually have to do is measure which of the great things they’re doing are the things that are actually drawing women in. Is it that they changed from Java to Python, is it that they changed the name of the course, is it that they have more associate female professors there, is it real-world problems?

They’re all trying different things and some of those things overlap, but no one is really studying what are the elements of these different programs that are really the ones that can pull women in. That can start now.

White: In fast-paced, male-dominated spaces, there’s often a talk about the danger of off-ramping for women, that one of those loss points is the natural point where they want or need to invest time and energy into their families. You essentially off-ramped to have kids. What would you say to women in the tech space who are thinking about leaving a demanding job to better balance family?

Gates: I would say see if there’s another way you can make it work. These are phenomenal jobs in a phenomenal industry. It is very fast paced and I think that makes it tricky and difficult. If you look at the unpaid work that’s going on in the United States, women are still bearing the huge brunt of that. It’s the ones who actually rebalance at home that can actually start to make it work.

It’s hard, and I think there has to be some rebalancing in the companies too. That’s why I’m thrilled to see this discussion about paid family leave, because it’s recognizing that these women in particular, but men, too, have to juggle home life. The reason it’s got to be paid family leave, not maternal leave, is that if a man will take time off, then they’ll help with the kids all the way through the raising of a child, not just at the beginning. So there has to be some change in the work-life balance with companies too.

White: When you started Pivotal the country was poised to start selecting a president, potentially its first woman president. Does the new administration in any way change the way you’re thinking about the conversations related to gender equity in the workplace?

Gates: This conversation is important no matter who is the president. We have to make progress on getting more women in tech. So it honestly, for me, doesn’t matter which administration it is. Male or female, Republican or Democrat, it’s a place where we just have to make progress. I’ve always looked at it as a very bipartisan issue. I’ve looked at it at the federal and the state and the business level so any policy that we’re going to look at is going to have to work for Republicans and Democrats, for a small business and a large business. Quite frankly we’ll probably have this conversation 10 years from now to see where are we. There will be a change of administration in between now and then, so we have to find a policy and sets of programs that will work no matter who is in office.

White: You’ve become most well known for the significant humanitarian work that the Gates Foundation does. Why is gender diversity in tech an issue that’s critical enough to divert some of your attention?

Gates: Tech underlies everything we do. It’s game-changing in every single field across the board. It’s almost like asking yourself the question of, well, what if we didn’t have any women scientists in biology? Well, I can tell you we wouldn’t be studying women’s health if we didn’t have amazing women biologists. If we don’t have women in the tech space, we won’t even be asking ourselves some of the right questions. I can’t imagine a world without women in tech.