Last week, you announced plans to invest your money and your time in helping women succeed in tech. You shared plans to build up a personal office, separate from the foundation you run with your husband Bill and your friend Warren Buffett. The point of this office, you said, was to dedicate resources to getting more women into tech. Then, you asked for our help and advice.
So here goes.
Melinda Gates, we know you're just getting started. We know that you're in learning mode and, just like when you start new work at the foundation, you will use this period to school up on the issues that keep women from succeeding in tech. So we — more than 190 of us Backchannel readers — have compiled some ideas for you.
We love that you are focused on the leaky pipeline; we love that you want to figure out where women give up on tech and find ways to re-engage them. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
First off, please keep in mind the interconnections between race, class, and gender. "We can't just focus on women without specific interventions for women of color — otherwise you'll find that you're only benefiting privileged white women, which is not the diversity that we're looking for in tech," says freada kapor klein.
Also, tech is not just a career choice for the young, There are many mid-career women who would like to learn new skills and find their way into tech jobs.
We can do more to address this problem if we understand it better. Right now, our data is too limited. AllStarCode Founder Christina Lewis Halpern says we need improved data to give us more specifics about race and gender, not just marking the number of women or the number of people of color in organizations, but mapping the intersections: "Typically schools and organizations report that their student body is, say, 50 percent male/female and 30 percent people of color. However...we don't know the gender breakdown in the person of color category."
There are many transparency efforts under way. Journalist Iris Kuo, for example, cofounded the gender equality app LedBetter, which showcases gender disparity in the top ranks of 2,000 companies.
There are many efforts to promote diversity, but too often, we have no idea whether any of them work. High tech companies spend billions on programs to promote diversity. Yet there's very little credible evidence the programs work, says Terra Terwilliger, who works for the Center for the Advancement of Women's Leadership at Stanford. "Coming from high tech to academia, it has been shocking to me how little we know about how to make change that sticks. There are a lot of opinions, ideas, pet projects, and 'hacks,' but not a lot of proof points."
So many people are working on these issues! Get to know them. We've referenced more than two dozens groups in the comments section of your interview. One that keeps coming up is The National Center for Women & Information Technology. Duke computer science professor Jeff Forbes notes that it's an excellent resource for anyone looking for examples of evidence-based practices for getting women into computer science classrooms and beyond.
Oh, and many folks are seeing great progress. Check out what's working for them. Did you know that women account for half of the incoming class of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University this fall? Half! Check out what they're doing.
Parents need help and support. Both mothers and fathers need better leave policies. You know this. We know you know this. But let us tell you again that it will make a big difference.
And while we're talking about work, let's broaden the hiring criteria for technical talent. There are many capable programmers who don't have Stanford degrees.
"Too many companies are still recruiting by the standard formula of a MIT/Stanford/[Carnegie Mellon University] degree plus experience at elite tech companies, and find experience in any other fields irrelevant," says Swarthmore student Meiri Anto.
Women have a hard time getting funded. "Seed money and startup funding for those of us already here to start our own companies would help out a lot," says developer Bryanna Lindsey. "I personally have no idea where to start to get seed money; the process seems inaccessible to someone like me with a development but no business background."
We want you to know that it can be frustrating to work in the trenches and see the ways in which an industry about which we care deeply is failing women. Dr. Angelica Lim, for example, says that she's the sole female software engineering manager at an international humanoid robotics company. "If male-focused video game marketing was what led to the drop in CS women, we need to ensure that tomorrow's tech (VR, AR, robotics) doesn't follow down the same path," she cautions. "Our company taught newbies how to use our robot at the [TechCrunch Disrupt SF Hackathon]," she says. "How many women were able to get their hands on the latest tech here? The photos show a sea of men. The result? A gender gap between male and female expertise, simply because one group gets their hands on the tech earlier."
But we have so many good ideas for you. Investor Hunter Walk suggests a version of Teach for America that's focused on placing STEM educators in American schools while also underwriting necessary equipment. Self-taught coder Leigh Lawhon suggests an Unhackathon event. "What we need is a place where the tech non-elite feel comfortable and of use," she says, noting that she is a person who loves hackathons. "Instead of being highly competitive and rewarded with angel investments, make it about learning and civic hacking and taking part in the modernization of our government," she says.
We will be paying attention. We're here to help. Please report back on your progress. We all believe that tech will be better for it.