After years of travelling the world working to improve the lives of impoverished women overseas, Melinda Gates looked around the US and decided some work needed to be done here at home.
So she’s setting up a new personal office dedicated to issues ranging from improving family leave to figuring out what has driven women out of careers in computer science, Gates told Backchannel’s Jessi Hempel.
“I was doing all this work in the developing world. I would be out learning about these issues for women and girls,” Gates explains. “Then I’d be flying back home, and say to myself, ‘How far has the U.S. really come on these issues?’ We’ve come a long way since my mum’s generation. But have we made as much progress as I’d like to see us make? No way.”
Gates got her own start in tech, graduating from Duke with a computer science degree (and then getting an MBA). She spent a decade at Microsoft where she met her husband Bill Gates.
(Bill asked her out one Saturday morning in the company parking lot. She basically turned him down at first.)
Gates isn’t quite sure what she’ll invest in or how with this new project. She says she’s in the early learning-and-gathering-data stage.
But she will be studying why women are staying away from computer science, especially compared to other professions that were once male-dominated domains. She tells Hempel:
“When I was in school in the 1980s, women got about 37 per cent of computer science degrees and law degrees then. Law went up to 47 per cent now. In medicine, we were at 28 per cent in 1984. That’s gone up to 48 per cent. Computer science went from 37 per cent to 18 per cent.”
Silicon Valley has been wringing its hands over this issue for years. The generally accepted thought is that this is a “pipeline issue” i.e. girls are not being taught to code at a young enough age for them to want to pursue in in college and as a career.
So many, many companies, including Microsoft, are investing in programs to teach kids, especially girls, to code.
But Gates wonders if there’s still too much unconscious bias telling girls that coding is not for them.
She says even subtle things, like the posters on the wall of the room at the coding camps, will influence a girl’s perception of a coding camp experience.
“We know that in coding camps that girls attend, their perceptions of how they do differ depending on the posters on the wall. If there are all male-gender posters on the wall, they don’t feel very good about how they did.”
And that’s what’s making her wonder if one of the problems is the way women and girls are represented in video games.
“The research is pretty thin on this stuff. We know when in history [women became less interested in computer science]. When I was growing up, all the games — the palm games, the Atari games, the computer games — they were all gender neutral, right? Then we went through this gamification that became very male. We don’t know for sure, but it looks like the correlation is that when the gaming industry became very male, all of a sudden you had women in computer science [drop off].”
Sexism in gaming has been well documented: everything from the body types and overly sexualized clothing of female characters, to the stereotypes and bit-player roles that female characters are assigned, has been cited.
While sexism in video games seems to be on the decline, researchers point out that it may still be having an big impact, “such as the very popular Grand Theft Auto (GTA) games, [where] female characters are treated as sex objects rather than as individuals worthy of respect,” researchers say in a recent study on the issue.
Gates says that that the lack of women in tech right now is a big deal. The industry is inventing the artificial intelligence/machine learning apps that will one day run our lives and managing our healthcare.
She points to Apple’s Health App as an early example. It didn’t track women’s health information at first (although it now does and has since iOS 9). Still, Gates says:
“I’m not picking on Apple at all, but just to come out with a health app that doesn’t track menstruation? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having menstruation for half my life, so far. It’s just such a blatant error, and it’s just an example of all the things we can leave out for women.”