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Melinda Gates
Melinda Gates speaks at the University of Washington, where she and her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, were honored at a celebration for the UW’s new computer science building. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Melinda Gates is convening leading tech companies in an effort to dramatically increase the number of computer science degrees awarded to women of color, part of a broader effort to improve diversity in an industry dominated by white men.

Gates’ independent executive office, Pivotal Ventures, and McKinsey & Company released a report Wednesday that shows more work is needed to bring underrepresented groups into technology. That’s the goal of the new Reboot Representation Tech Coalition, a coordinated effort by 12 technology companies to boost funding and align philanthropic efforts. The goal is to double the number of women of color graduating with computer science degrees by 2025.

“The gender gap in tech is bigger than any one company, so companies who want to be a part of the solution are going to have to work together,” Gates said in an email interview with GeekWire. “This coalition is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between tech companies and an innovative new approach to closing the gender gap in tech.”

It’s the latest initiative from Pivotal Ventures, which Gates launched in 2015. The organization is her executive office, independent from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She started Pivotal to pursue projects tied to gender inequity and women’s empowerment that might not fit within the structure of the Gates Foundation.

(Pivotal Ventures Graphic)

Closing the gender gap is one of the most talked about issues in the tech industry but the research indicates that companies aren’t always putting their money where their mouth is. Just 5 percent of philanthropy dollars spent by companies surveyed in the report go toward gender diversity in tech. Less than 1 percent of companies’ grants are focused specifically on women of color.

A Tech Advisory Panel of 15 companies worked together on the research and developed a set of recommendations to improve diversity-focused philanthropy efforts. Those suggestions include coordinating initiatives so that they help women throughout their careers, not just at specific points, and measuring the impact of those efforts with the same rigor applied to the company’s core business. A broader group of 32 companies shared information about their philanthropic and corporate social responsibility work for the report.

The Reboot Representation Tech Coalition is a separate but related effort. Adobe, Dell, Intel, Microsoft, Oath, Pivotal Ventures, BNY Mellon, Best Buy, Symantec, LinkedIn, Qualcomm, and Applied Materials comprise the coalition. Together they have committed more than $12 million toward the goal of doubling women of color earning computer science degrees.

“It represents an unprecedented collaboration between tech companies and an unprecedented focus on women of color,” Gates said. “Historically, tech companies have worked on this issue only in silos; this is a chance for them to pool resources, ideas, and learnings. I also hope it sends a signal to tech and beyond that the talents of female technologists are worth investing in.”

The coalition will work toward its goals by focusing on two core areas: supporting women of color to pursue computer science degrees and ensuring that women of color are supported throughout their careers in tech. Gates believes that changes can be made at the university level to make women of color feel more welcome.

That perspective challenges the polarizing perspective put forward by University of Washington computer science professor Stuart Reges earlier this year. Like the Google engineer, James Damore, before him, Reges claimed that women are less likely to pursue computer science than men because of personal preference.

“People talk about the problem in tech, that there’s not enough women in tech and they assume that it’s because of oppression,” he said in a previous interview with GeekWire. “I don’t believe that. I believe that choice is more significant in explaining what’s going on.”

Reges believes that schools, like UW, have done as much as they can to create a welcoming environment for women and says that achieving gender parity is unlikely. UW’s computer science school vehemently and repeatedly challenged Reges’ perspective and said more can be done to attract women.

Like the Allen School, Gates believes computer science departments can improve diversity by offering different experiences that appeal to different types of students.

“The traditional computing degree experience tends to attract a specific kind of student with a specific kind of background — think white, male, and likes videogames,” she said. “If we want to increase the representation of women of color in this major, then it’s worth reexamining whether there are things institutions of higher learning could or should be doing to attract and retain a different kind of CS student.”

For Gates, the issue is personal. Before eventually devoting her life to philanthropy, she spent several years at Microsoft where she worked on major projects, like Expedia. During her career in tech, she says she experienced “what it’s like to be the only woman in the room.” Being underrepresented “can make you really question yourself and your abilities,” she said.

“I almost quit a job in tech that I loved because I worried I didn’t fit in, and I know a lot of women who did,” Gates added. “A growing body of evidence tells us that more diverse teams are more successful and that companies are more innovative when there are a broad range of voices and perspectives represented in decision-making conversations. We should be doing everything we can to ensure that talented women of color see a future for themselves in tech and that they feel encouraged and empowered to give voice to their ideas.”

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