The National Conversation: Melinda Gates
As the cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private philanthropic group, Melinda Gates has spent two decades thinking strategically about how to wipe out extreme poverty, eradicate deadly diseases, and enhance health care and education in some of the world’s most impoverished communities. Now, Gates is focused on a problem a little closer to home, both figuratively and literally. In 2016, she announced a new project, run out of her executive office in Seattle, dedicated to getting more women working and thriving in America’s technology industry. For Gates, now 52, the pursuit is a deeply personal one. She graduated from Duke with a bachelor’s of computer science and an MBA in 1987, and went on to work at Microsoft (where she met her husband and Microsoft’s former CEO, Bill) for more than a decade.
Though Gates found work, and success, in the tech industry, fewer and fewer women have followed suit: In 1987, 38 percent of computer science degrees were earned by women, compared to just 18 percent today. Women make up roughly a third of the employees at Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies, according to several recent studies, and that number drops significantly among leadership positions. Gates, whose background informs the data-driven approach she takes to philanthropy, says she’s currently in “information-gathering” mode with this new pursuit, and will collect more facts and figures before announcing how and where she plans to focus her efforts.
We spoke with Gates about the value of collecting reliable data, why women are good for business, and which tech companies in Silicon Valley are role models for gender equality.
Since the late 1980s, when you graduated, the number of women getting computer science degrees in the U.S. has plummeted. How do you explain the huge decline in computer science enrollment among women? It’s a jaw-dropping figure.
It is, and I think what’s so surprising is that no one really knows for sure how we got to where we are. I looked at the data, and it’s not great data, but it does offer a few possible explanations. Right around when this drop started, computers were moving into homes. And the thing that really first got computers into the home were games, and the gaming industry was very male-oriented, and that seems to be when women started dropping out of the pipeline in droves. Something like that can have this momentum effect, where women don’t see role models and so they don’t get into the industry—it’s a leaky pipeline that starts all the way back in kindergarten.
What I would like to see is how many schools are actually teaching computer science and how many girls are taking it and how many boys are taking it. And what does that look like over time? I’d like to see that at the elementary school level, at the high school level, and at the college level.
One of the stats we have right now is the AP test for computer science. About 22 percent of AP testers for computer science are girls. I’d like to see that number go up over time.
So you’re really talking about digging in at the foundational level, very, very early on. This isn’t all about looking inside a tech company and counting the male-female split. We’re talking about way earlier.
Way earlier. We have to because the tech industry is dying to get more women, right? Some of the best paying jobs for women are in tech. These companies have some of the best family leave policies because they know if they get a woman, they want to hang on to her. So, they’re almost at the end of the pipeline, and we need to address the start of that. And it’s not just about the quantitative data, but it’s qualitative. How is it that girls feel unwelcomed, and if they feel unwelcomed, why do they feel unwelcomed? What is it? I know some tech companies are even looking inside their own workforce and trying to find out why women move to certain areas of the company or gravitate toward certain projects. They’re talking to women, and the women will say, “If I’m the only one on the team, even if I’m surrounded by 10 great guys I enjoy working with, I’m just not as comfortable as I would be if there were more women on the team.”
Tech industry diversity reports have become increasingly common in the last few years, with big companies issuing public documents that break down how many women they hire versus how many men, and how many minorities versus whites. Do you see these reports as helpful, or are they more lip service than an actual part of the solution?
I think any time that you get transparency of data, it’s a very good thing, because then you can actually have a conversation about what’s going on. So reports like these are a first step, and we can then say, “OK, now what can we do?” And quite honestly, if some tech companies are doing better than other ones, those other companies are going to see that in these reports and want to emulate what the companies are doing. Because they want more women and more minorities. So, there you can see the importance of role modeling again, this time between companies.
[Salesforce CEO] Marc Benioff is one shining example here. A few years ago, he came out and said, “OK, we looked at salaries, and we looked at women in our company, and we realized we actually had a pay difference in certain levels, and we didn’t have enough women in other levels.” And so they made a huge effort to bring women up, by giving them more specific performance reviews, more feedback, and getting them into higher levels and paying them equitably. And I thought that was just a fantastic thing. And it’s smart for business, because he knows these diverse teams make the company better, make the product better, and more women will go, “Hey, I want to work there.”
How exactly is diversity good for a company’s bottom line?
They get better products—products that women and minorities want to use. I’ve worked around phenomenal programmers and program managers at Microsoft, men and women. Men have great ideas, but women also have great ideas, and a woman will see something from a different perspective. She’s juggling different demands on her life.
It’s one thing to get more women into the industry, which is progress we can see in diversity reports. But those reports rarely break down data on the number of women rising in the ranks, or working in leadership roles. And the fact is, there are far fewer women than men in these roles. What explains that particular gap?
I think it’s different at each company. Some companies are much more welcoming of women; a company like IBM has been that way for a long time. Long before Ginni Rometty became CEO, they had lots of women. Even in the 1980s, they were well-known for promoting women and minorities. They just have that culture. I think some of the tech companies that are newer, maybe those started by a young man or a couple of young men, you get that kind of rah-rah mentality. They don’t necessarily come from a very mature place, and they haven’t been around very long. And so some of those places, at least when I talk to women in the Valley, they don’t feel very welcoming to women and women don’t see women actually coding or running a project team; they don’t see them as leaders. And so that’s when they say, “Eh, this just doesn’t feel like a place I necessarily want to work.”
Are there tech companies right now that stand out to you, aside from IBM’s longstanding culture of recruiting women? Are there companies in the Valley right now that you see acting as role models?
I certainly hear a lot about Facebook being very welcoming for young women, and I know a few young women who have gone to work there in their 20s. I think part of that is a culture that’s set both by Mark [Zuckerberg] and by Sheryl [Sandberg]. Sheryl is very vocal about women’s issues, about women needing to lean in and have other women’s backs. They have a great family leave policy, which others have adopted, and I think Mark is one of the first male CEOs that I know who took that family leave policy. He took it for two months, and he was very outspoken about it. He had his daughter, Max, and he took her out to get her vaccines and go out jogging in the jogging stroller. He’s role-modeling what’s right for men and women, because we need men to take family leave. It’s important for a young family if the man takes leave because he then helps with the child all the way along much more than he would have otherwise.
And that’s important, because we have 57 percent of women who are now in the workforce, so that means you have a lot of dual working families. And so the woman’s working all day, but she comes home, and she has all this unpaid labor, where she’s expected to do the homework and get the lunch box together and set the rules and make sure the kids are ready for school the next day. If she’s doing all of that and he’s not helping, she’s got a second shift that he doesn’t have.
Getting back to the data conversation. You know what kind of data you’re looking for, to get to the root of the problem. What kind of numbers would be your ideal result? What does success look like?
Parity. Parity is success to me—when you have 50 percent of college computer science graduates as women—and I think we’re almost there. And then I would look to leadership positions, and see if we’re getting 50 percent of the leaders of tech companies being women. I look to law and medicine as my shining beacons of hope and light, and I would say that they are there in terms of undergraduate and graduate degrees. But if you look at specialty fields of medicine, do you have as many female neurosurgeons as males? No. And in the law field, you still don’t have as many female partners as you’d like to, but you’re seeing a lot more female lawyers out there with all kinds of different careers. So then you get this role-modeling where young women see dozens of different types of female lawyers and they say, “Hey, I don’t want to be like that, but I want to be like that.” So when we get there in computer science, we’ll know we’ve arrived.