Melinda Gates to take on lack of women in tech: report

Melinda Gates is taking aim at one of the most high-profile and persistent problems in the technology industry, the lack of women, a new report said.

Gates, who runs the $40 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with her husband Bill, has some street cred to back up her push to improve the gender balance. She has a computer science degree and an MBA from Duke University, and worked at Microsoft for 10 years.

But when Gates had come out of college, more than a third of computer science degrees were going to women. Now, it’s fewer than a fifth, according to Backchannel, which on Thursday revealed Gates’ plans. Reports suggest women make up only about 30 percent of tech sector workers.

Gates is setting up an office to work on the issues that create the gender disparity, including the “leaky pipeline” that spills girls and women off the path to tech j0bs. “It starts in elementary school, then middle school, then high school, and so on. I want to figure out the solutions,” Gates told Backchannel.

With technology driven increasingly by artificial intelligence, it’s important that the software be created with a female touch, along with the male, Gates said. “Amazing things are going to come with AI. Just take healthcare. Who’s going to be taking care of our elderly two generations from now? It’s going to be AI. But do you want all males in their early twenties and thirties creating the AI that’s going to take care of you when you’re older?,” she said. “I’m not picking on Apple at all, but just to come out with a health app that doesn’t track menstruation? It’s just such a blatant error, and it’s just an example of all the things we can leave out for women.”

Family leave – for men as well as women – will be another focus of her work, Gates said, singling out Google’s policies as exemplary. She also plans to look into venture funding for women and minorities. “We’re only talking about the women’s piece of this, but are you kidding? The diversity numbers for blacks and Latinos are terrible in these things,” she said.

Gates requested that Backchannel readers share ideas about the gender issue. Miranda Nash, co-founder and CEO at job-recruitment startup Qeople and a former Oracle engineer and executive, pointed out another leak-point affecting women who work in tech. “I’m concerned about the structural problems that cause 56 percent of qualified women to leave tech by mid-career,” Nash wrote. “It’s the same structural problem that leads to the ‘wage gap.’ Recent studies… have shown that the ‘wage gap’ is almost non-existent for single women without children. A gap occurs where long hours and particular hours are important for advancement, and women with children experience a dramatic gap in tech.

“So, bringing more girls into STEM and CS, in particular, is great, but we have to solve the mid-career leakage as well or we will lose too many of them before they get into positions of power.”

Meanwhile, one man’s solution for Silicon Valley’s gender problem has drawn serious flak. Venture capitalist John Greathouse wrote Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal that women seeking tech jobs should “create an online presence that obscures their gender.”

“A gender-neutral persona allows women to access opportunities that might otherwise be closed to them,” Greathouse wrote. “In your LinkedIn profile, Twitter account, email address and online correspondence use your initials (or a unisex name) and eliminate photos.”

Outrage followed Greathouse’s suggestion. Kara Swisher of Recode didn’t mince words on Twitter: “Let me just be clear as I can: This VC is a (profanity) idiot.”

Another reader commenting at the bottom of the WSJ article wrote, “Seriously? This only works if all the guys do the same thing, John. Let’s start with you!”

Machine learning scientist and developer JB Rubinovitz told The Guardian, in response to Greathouse’s article, that she started using her initials and a gender-unclear avatar a year ago, after receiving daily threats and harassment as moderator of a Facebook group for hackers. Rubinovitz told the paper that hiding her gender brought about an “incredibly significant” difference in how she was treated.

Still, she said, she wouldn’t advise women in general to follow her lead. “We should be expecting the business with unconscious bias to confront that bias, “ she said. “We need to be talking about who will hold the community accountable for sexism, not expect women to act like men.”

On Thursday afternoon, a chastened Greathouse, blistered by the vitriol for his mansplaining, took to Twitter to apologize for his “dreadful” WSJ article. “I hurt women and I utterly failed to help,” he tweeted.

Photo: Melinda and Bill Gates wait to share the podium as the speakers during the commencement ceremony at Stanford University in June 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)


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