Melinda Gates is launching a new initiative that will be dedicated to getting more women in tech-related fields and keeping them in STEM fields. For Gates—a co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private philanthropy—this endeavour is personal.
"I care about computer science," said Gates, who has a degree in computer science from Duke University, to Backchannel in an interview. "When I was in school in the 1980s, women got about 37 percent of computer science degrees and law degrees then. Law went up to 47 percent now. In medicine, we were at 28 percent in 1984. That’s gone up to 48 percent. Computer science went from 37 percent to 18 percent."
According to Gates, she’s currently in the “learning mode” of the project, which entails “learning, collecting information, talking to lots of experts and looking at what research is out there.” The next step is deciding where her investments will go.
“Every company needs technology, and yet we’re graduating fewer women technologists,” said Gates. “That is not good for society. We have to change it.”
Currently, she has found two problematic areas. The first is the gaming industry—gender neutral games “went through this gamification that became very male,” which coincides with when rates of women in computer science start to decline. (Gates acknowledges there is little research on this topic—the association could be correlational but not causational.) The second is education.
“We all know there’s this leaky pipeline,” said Gates. “It starts in elementary school, then middle school, then high school, and so on. I want to figure out the solutions. If you take each stage of the leaky pipeline: let’s just pick the part where women start college. Some of the best programs, UW, Stanford, Berkeley — or what [president] Maria Klawe is doing at Harvey Mudd — are finally looking at that very first CS course. If it’s completely geared towards an 18-year-old white male, and they are not thinking about role models for women or problem sets they get for women, how do we keep [women] in the course?”
Gates acknowledges that things are changing in Silicon Valley and spotlights companies that are doing it right and companies that are missing the mark. She commends Google, for example, for having the best family leave policies and calls out Apple for leaving out menstruation from their health-tracking app.
Getting women in tech is one problem to solve but keeping them is another. According to Gates, having good family leave policies on federal, state, and private-sector level is essential.
“There shouldn’t be only maternal leave,” said Gates. “There should be family leave, because if you’ve got a sick or elderly parent or you have a child, having the man and the woman take the time off helps.”