Sisterhood Takes Root: Melinda Gates Responds to Sexism in STEM

As our society becomes increasingly computer-driven with seemingly endless opportunities for innovation, an influx of creative and motivated thinkers in computer science is necessary to push the boundaries of current technology as well as our imaginations. Graduating Ursuline girls are ready and eager to fill these positions and share their talents, but recent public allegations of sexism in the tech industry suggest that the tech industry may not be ready for them.

Recent claims made against well-known technology companies like Google and Uber have prompted discussions about prevalent gender bias in Silicon Valley jobs. Back in September, Melinda Gates publicly condemned the unchecked and widespread sexism and sexual harassment in the tech industry.

Gates specifically responded to the offensive memo written by Google employee James Damore who attributed unequal pay and leadership roles for women to biological deficiencies.

“When I read that Google memo, I didn’t know whether to be sad or whether to be outraged. And I think the sadness came first. The sadness to see that kind of point of view,” said Gates to CNN.

This was Gates’s first public statement on the issue. Through her experience as a woman working in Silicon Valley and her perspective as the wife of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, Gates offered insights into the reality of sexism in computer science jobs.

While sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace are issues that affect many fields, Gates highlights how they are especially problematic in the tech industry, since society is increasingly relying on technology and massive Silicon Valley companies like Google, Microsoft, Uber, and Amazon that create this technology.

“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,” Gates says to The Atlantic.

Sexist beliefs like Damore’s are evident in Silicon Valley work environments. Women at Google have filed lawsuits claiming they had been skipped over for promotions, a SoFi employee alleged sexual harassment claims against CEO Mike Cagney, and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned due to his mishandling of harassment complaints, reported in Daily Mail.
Along with computer science jobs, the venture capitalist firms that fund tech startups also struggle with gender bias as CNN reports that only 3% of female-led companies receive venture capitalist funding.

“I think they also fund what they know,” Gates said to CNN. “Today, they know male, white, Caucasian, in a hoodie, looks like a geek, comes from an Ivy League or equivalent school. That’s their funding criteria.”

Like many Ursuline seniors, Gates planned to study computer science in college and pursue a career in the tech industry. In the 80’s when Gates attended Duke University, women made up 37% of computer science graduates, but that number has dropped to 18%.

“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,” said Gates to The Atlantic.

Gates plans to help encourage more women seeking tech jobs by partnering with women-run venture capitalist firms and talking to women at Microsoft to ensure an environment of equality, reported by CNN.

Gates believes another reason why the number of women in tech has decreased since her entrance into the computer science workforce is the gender bias girls encounter in grade school and high school, with the assumption that boys will be better programmers than girls. Through the $2 million grant her foundation gave to Ursuline to build the French Family Center, Gates helped Ursuline girls interested in pursuing STEM careers like she once did.

“Opportunities have to be equal before you can judge whether abilities are equal,” she said to the Dallas Morning News. “So that’s my vision for this building. Let it be an equalizer.”

Senior Clara Stadler envisions herself applying her computer science skills to a field like economics or biology instead of working strictly in the technology industry. Stadler recognizes the high possibility of encountering sexism in college and her work environment.

“I have paid close attention to the gender diversity present in the computer science programs I have visited. Some schools have a fairly equal pairing, while some have a mere fraction of women. What matters more to me than the number of women in the room is the role of those women. I could be the only person in the class and be happy as long as my classmates do not underestimate me,” said Stader.

Stadler has also been paying attention to the media’s recent coverage of Silicon Valley sexism allegations like the Google memo.

“I think the imbalance among the sexes employed at Google is ridiculous. Not to say that those men do not deserve to work there, but to be okay with having one-fifth of the workers be women seems very unlike Google. Google prides itself on its research and innovation—when are they going to progress to the level of gender equality necessary to operate in the future?”

Hopefully, when computer science driven students like Stadler enter the workforce in their respective tech careers, their work environments will provide them with equal opportunities.

Stadler said, “I hope that I and other women will be treated based on merit and not gender. I hope that no woman will have to stand alone and prove herself every moment she is at work. I hope that the wage gap is addressed and laws against it enforced within my lifetime. I know that these will take time and struggle, but they are common goals for most women and I believe we can unite to achieve them. I hope that employers realize the importance of gender diversity in their workplace and, by implementing it, can create the innovations that will make the world a better place.”

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