Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, opened a revealing speech Wednesday by talking about her first love, which she admits “is not Bill’s favorite story.”
“Like most high school relationships, it was completely and totally all-consuming,” she said, at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Orlando. “It started to change where I wanted to go to college, where I might live, how it was even thinking about my life.”
Her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, takes issue with the story out of competitiveness but not romantic jealousy.
“The object of my affections was an Apple III computer,” Melinda Gates said.
Technology became a lifelong passion for Gates, who went on to study computer science and business in college and then take a serendipitous job at Microsoft. “It was an incredibly exciting time to be working in tech,” she said.
But Gates, like many entering tech at that time, also endured some “spectacular failures.” She pioneered the team behind the now-defunct, Microsoft Bob, which was supposed to turn your desktop into a virtual home. Reviewers clobbered the program and after her first public demo, Gates new Bob wasn’t long for this world. He did leave behind a surprising legacy though.
“One piece of that project still lives on today — and I can tell you for certain no one on that team thought this was going to last — and that’s the font, Comic Sans.”
Tech, Gates learned, is unpredictable. She also never would have guessed that the number of women in technical roles would actually decrease over time, a phenomenon she calls “a bug in the system.” Gates’ keynote address Wednesday focused on ways to get young women excited about technology like she was coding on her Apple III. It’s critical, she says, to provide more avenues toward STEM jobs for girls.
“It’s time the world starts recognizing that the next Bill Gates might not look anything like the last one,” she said. “And that not every great idea comes wrapped in a hoodie. Right now there’s a girl in elementary school whose ideas one day will change the world. It’s time everyone starts seeing it that way.”
Gates said it’s imperative that technological advances are built by people of all backgrounds, particularly as we enter the age of artificial intelligence.
“You often hear the big challenge is teaching machines to think and behave more like humans but I can’t help but think we should be more specific,” she said. “We don’t want to teach computers racism or sexism. Or selfishness or greed. We want to teach computers the very best of what humanity has to offer. And for that to happen. We need the people building A.I. to represent not just one small slice of the human experience. But all genders. All ethnicities.”
Gates has been working on these initiatives through her Pivotal Ventures executive office, and last week she made her debut on LinkedIn, writing about the danger of assuming that today’s hard-charging corporate mentality is appropriate for the modern workforce that many companies want to create.
Over the weekend, Gates also wrote directly about women in computing, previewing some of the themes from her Grace Hopper talk.
Over the past few years, we’ve been talking a lot about the need for more women in computing and why fulfilling that need would be better for both women and computing. But real diversity in computer science means more than just changing the gender of the stereotype we have in our heads. It means replacing that stereotype with a much more expansive image of who computer programmers are, where they come from, and what they want.
Continue reading for Gates’ full prepared remarks from her Grace Hopper keynote:
When I was in high school, I fell in love. I fell in love hard.
Like a lot of high school relationships, it was all-consuming. My parents were actually quite supportive. Sure, in the beginning, they preferred we spend our time together in the common areas of the house. But eventually, they even let us hang out in my bedroom.
As you might imagine, this isn’t Bill’s favorite story about my high school years. Because the object of my affections… was an Apple III computer.
My dad brought it home for my sister and me to encourage our love of math and science. And it quite literally changed my life.
For the rest of high school, I spent my afternoons as captain of the drill team—and my evenings huddled over that computer programming in BASIC.
Needless to say, I didn’t fit most people’s image of what a computer scientist might look like. I’m guessing many of you know that feeling.
But I knew, even back then, that tech was going to change the world— and I wanted to be a part of it. I studied computer science and business in college, and I started applying for jobs. I still have the little post-it note with the message from my mom saying that Microsoft had called with an offer.
It was an incredibly exciting time to be working in tech. Everything around us was charged with potential.
We’d look at a shelf of encyclopedias or a stack of magazines and ask: what if these were digital so you could search them all at once?
I remember buying airline tickets over the phone and imagining how, one day, we’d buy them online. Which, come to think of it, we now do on the phone. I guess we’ve kind of come full circle on that one.
Of course, any time you’re dreaming big, you’re bound to have some spectacular failures.
Ever heard of Microsoft Bob? Well, if not, I’m not surprised. Our big idea was to turn your desktop into a virtual home. But the program needed a more powerful computer than most people had back then— and a lot of people found the design a little too cute. The reviews were absolutely brutal.
I led the team, so I was the face of the project—which in this case was a dubious honor. Walking into that first public demo was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I knew I was going to get killed.
So I walked out onto that stage in a t-shirt that said “Microsoft Bob” on the front… and had a bright red bulls-eye on the back. It got some laughs. But, more importantly, it was a reminder to myself that I signed up for this. That the chance to take big risks is part of what I love about tech.
And sometimes, you just don’t know what’s going to work and what isn’t. For example, one part of that project still lives on today. The font, Comic Sans. I promise you: I wouldn’t have predicted that.
Here’s something else I wouldn’t have guessed. When we imagined a future of online magazines and airline bookings, we assumed there’d be more women building it. After all, the number of women in medicine and law was rising. Most of us thought tech was going to trend that way, too.
But in the time since I was at Microsoft, the percentage of women in tech has actually gone down. We all know the numbers.
In 2015, women made up only a quarter of the entire tech workforce— and held just 15 percent of the technical roles.
African-American women are just 3 percent of the tech workforce.
Hispanic women are 1 percent.
News flash: there’s a bug in the system. And it’s happening at the worst possible time.
The economy is expected to add half a million computing jobs in the next decade. But there aren’t nearly enough CS graduates to fill them.
Which is just one reason why it’s imperative we break down the barriers keeping women out of this industry.
What’s more, tech has officially become the world’s largest industry — and its impact on our daily lives is only going to grow.
Just think about A.I. You often hear that the big challenge is teaching machines to think and behave more like humans. I can’t help but think we should be more specific.
We don’t want to teach computers racism or sexism, or selfishness or greed. We want to teach computers the very best of what humanity has to offer.
And for that to happen, we need the people building A.I. to represent not just one small slice of the human experience, but all genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds. My dad has been saying this since the 1960s, when he worked on Apollo missions with NASA. Even back then, he made a point of recruiting women to his teams because he knew diversity made them stronger.
That was also my experience when I managed teams at Microsoft. And these anecdotes are backed by research. Diverse teams are more productive and creative.
That’s why everyone suffers when a woman or a minority—or a woman who is a minority — can’t get a seat at the table. Without them, we’re failing to leverage the full force of our collective brainpower. We’re missing out on better products. Faster innovation. A more prosperous and productive future for everyone.
If we want the future of tech — and the future of humanity — to live up to its promise, the industry needs a whole lot more of what I’m seeing right here in this room.
But as I’m sure you know, outside these walls, the narrative around women in tech can be downright depressing. And if you’re a talented young woman and all you see are headlines like “Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” … who says, sign me up?
It’s classic recursion. Isn’t it?
It’s hard to be a woman in tech. So women don’t go into tech. Which makes it even harder to be a woman in tech. So even fewer women go into tech.
But I think the recursion is about to reach its termination case.
When I was starting my career, these stories weren’t covered. Now, they’re on the front page. So in some ways, the bad news… is actually good news.
More women are feeling empowered to speak out. Their voices are being amplified, and their experiences are being taken seriously. We are finally seeing consequences for bad behavior.
Now, some have called tech “a sea of white dudes.”
Well, it’s time the world starts recognizing that the next Bill Gates might not look anything like the last one. And that not every great idea comes wrapped in a hoodie.
Right now, there’s a girl in elementary school whose ideas will one day change the world. It’s time everyone starts seeing her that way.
No more warning her that CS is hard. That it’s all “brogrammers.” That she just won’t fit in.
No more memos arguing that so-called biological differences make her less likely to be a good programmer.
No more standing by as her dreams bump up against biases and barriers.
That girl deserves the chance to rise as high as her talents will take her. She deserves to have her voice heard, her perspective valued, and her great ideas funded. And the world deserves the chance to see what she can do.
So how do we make that happen?
A lot of you are already working on it. You’re designing hiring processes that minimize bias… you’re opening opportunities for every talented employee to move upward… and you’re connecting great ideas to VC funding.
There’s another part of the solution I’m interested in, too.
I think that if we want to see a sea change—if we want a wave of women in tech—then we need to open the flood gates.
Right now, a lot of diversity efforts focus on getting more women into the so-called “pipeline.”
But that pipeline isn’t producing much more than a trickle. And it has a lot of conditionals built in — a lot of if-then statements.
If you get girls to take the right math and computer science classes in high school, then they’ll succeed in their intro CS classes in college.
If they pass intro, then they will start their second-year courses on time and graduate in four years. And if they do that, then they can get their job in Silicon Valley.
Well, not every woman and girl is going to meet all those conditions. Many don’t want to — and there’s just no reason why they should have to in the first place.
Grace Hopper used to say that she hated the phrase “we’ve always done it that way.’”
So, in that spirit: what if we changed our basic assumption about how to diversify tech? What if we started from the premise that people get interested in computing at different times in their lives, in different ways, for different reasons? What if instead of one pipeline, we created new pathways — lots of them.
Or, to put it in coding terms: why not stop trying to get girls to meet the necessary conditions for each predetermined if-then statement? And why not start writing a series of for-loops?
Here are four we can use right now.
First: For girls growing up, let’s create plenty of pathways to explore tech — inside and outside the classroom. Oakland high schools have a great model where they partner with companies. Students learn tech skills in class—and build projects with a mentor from the community.
Second: For women in college, let’s make it clear that tech is a tool for solving real-world problems. That simple fact was a game-changer for a woman named Ellora Israni. She took her first CS class to fill a requirement. But then she realized, as she puts it, that “Computer science is as much about computers as chemistry is about beakers.”
When Ellora saw CS as a tool that could help her make the world a better place, she decided to major in it. Now, she’s at Harvard Law, because she wants to use her tech skills to help improve our justice system.
Of course, not everyone finds their path into tech freshman year.
Which brings me to my third for-loop: For women already majoring in something else, let’s offer programs that combine computing with the rest of their coursework — and lead to degrees in fields like bioinformatics.
And fourth: For women who discover their passion for tech at different times and different places, let’s open more pathways into the field.
For community college students, let’s create bridge programs that lead to a bachelor’s degree in CS — like they have at UC Davis.
And for women who’ve already graduated, let’s design master’s programs to help them transition into computing—like they do at Northeastern University.
When you open up pathways like those, you make way for women like Christina Emerson. Christina grew up in a working-class family in Detroit. She always had a passion for computers—but she assumed you needed a Stanford degree to make a career out of that.
A community college showed her that just wasn’t the case. And today, she has her own gaming company.
All of this comes down to the same point.
For anyone and everyone who has talent and interest, there should be a way into tech.
Not just one pipeline. Many pathways. That’s how we’ll turn the trickle into a torrent — and unleash a wave of talent.
Many of you in this room have already decided to be a part of the solution — a part of this wave.
You’re a big part of the reason that I believe that this is a transformative moment — for women and men, for tech, and for our future. Now, women didn’t build the barriers in tech, and we can’t break them down alone. Male allies are already critical partners in this work—and we will need more of them.
But we can lead the way. Just like Anita Borg and Telle Whitney did when they created the Grace Hopper conference more than 20 years ago. They knew the importance of celebrating amazing women like Admiral Hopper. They also understood the power of exponential growth.
The power of n.
Right now, there are about 12,000 people — women and men — seated in this room. What if we all committed to helping 10 women go into — or stay in — tech?
If every one of us commits to reaching 10 women, we’d reach 120,000. That’s more than the total number of Americans earning degrees in computer and information sciences each year.
And think about the ripple effect. Those 120,000 women will reach more women. So will the women they talk to. That’s when things really start getting good. That’s when we’ll look around and see an industry as diverse and dynamic as the country we live in. That’s when it’ll hit us that we’ve created a sea change.
It won’t always be easy. But that didn’t stop Ada. Hedy. Erna. Grace. Edie. Anita or Telle.
And judging by the force of this room, it’s not going to stop you, either. We fell in love with tech for a reason.
So let’s go make some waves. Let’s keep moving this industry forward. For the better. For everyone. And for good.