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Melinda Gates Wants to Inspire the Next Generation of Women in Tech

Photo: Courtesy of The Gates Archive

Melinda Gates was one of the first women to make a splash in the tech world, leading development on some of Microsoft’s early flagship programs. Now she aims to inspire other young women to follow in her footsteps.

Which educator had the greatest influence on your career aspirations and trajectory?

Her name is Susan Bauer. Just before my senior year of high school, Mrs. Bauer, who was my math teacher, saw a demonstration of an Apple II+ computer at a conference and convinced our principal to buy some for our school. This was a big deal, because most families didn’t have computers at home yet. Mrs. Bauer had a feeling that technology was going to play an outsized role in shaping the future and she wanted to equip her students to be a part of that.  

Early exposure to computers changed everything for me. I ended up studying computer science in college and spending nine years working at Microsoft. And I don’t know if any of that would have happened if it weren’t for Mrs. Bauer. She was the first advocate for women in tech I ever knew. 

What would you tell today’s educators to help them ignite a passion for STEM subjects in the next generation of female innovators?

The best educators understand that many, many girls are interested in STEM subjects — and many, many girls are really good at STEM subjects — but they get interested in them at different times and for different reasons. 

For example, because girls don’t always get the same early exposure to STEM that boys do, their interest tends to develop later. And while boys often get into tech through video games, girls are more likely to develop an interest in the subject when they see it as a way to solve real-world problems. 

So educators can help by introducing STEM to girls early, bringing these subjects to life, and by telling the girls in their classes, “Hey, I think you’d be good at this.” 

In the late 1980s, the tech industry was actually seeing increased gender diversity, with women comprising about 37 percent of computer science degrees. Now that number has dropped to around 19 percent. What happened?  

A lot of things. For decades, companies used aptitude tests in their hiring that selected for a certain kind of mathematically minded male. They also marketed their computers to those same boys and men. Meanwhile, the media hammered home these male-centric stereotypes in movies, television, and video games, amplifying the myth of the male tech whiz. And that stereotype guided who companies recruited, hired, and built cultures around.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think the next Bill Gates is going to look anything like the last one, and if we want to make sure we recognize her when we see her, it will require challenging some of society’s assumptions about what a successful technologist looks like.

For women who find themselves as the only woman at the table (as many women in tech do) how would you recommend they go about garnering respect without compromising who they are?

The worst thing you can do is put a lot of pressure on yourself to fit in. I know, because I’ve been there. During my first few years at Microsoft, I tried very hard to make myself less myself and more like the people around me. It’s no coincidence that that’s also when I considered quitting. 

What I learned is that I was much happier — and much more effective as a manager — when I found my own leadership style. My advice to anyone in that position today is this: You will succeed because of who you are, not in spite of it. And in the meantime, surround yourself with people who believe in you and will bring out the best in you. 

What is the benefit of gender parity in male-dominated industries, like tech, for that male-dominated majority? Why should they care?

I think most people — men and women — want to be a part of making the world a better, more equal place. Just understanding that gender equality is a prerequisite for a better future makes them want to be a part of the solution. 

But the reality is that even a company that doesn’t necessarily consider equality a priority does care about results, and there’s a growing body of data demonstrating that diversity is strongly and positively associated with better corporate financial performance. So no matter what angle you’re coming from, there’s a strong case to be made for closing these gender gaps.

Staff, [email protected]

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