Melinda Gates is a huge source of inspiration for me in general and especially through her admirable work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She just announced a few weeks ago that she will be devoting a great level of effort to the issue of gender inequality in the technical industry. She is determined to make a change, and is building an office and dedicating a team to address not only getting women into tech, but helping keep them there.
Most people assume that the number of females in computer science has increased over the past few years and certainly decades. However, that is incorrect. The number has actually continued to get worse over the past few decades. Women were twice as prevalent in the field 30 years ago. When Melinda joined Microsoft in 1987, she was the only woman in her hiring class. At the time, women received about 37% of computer science degrees. Law and medicine were two other industries where women were on the rise and there was a big push to change the gender inequalities. Now, both Law & Medicine have near parity, whereas tech has decreased to around 18%.
In this new devoted effort, Melinda’s goal is to start by learning about the reasons why more women are not entering into the tech industry, and ways that we can help support women in computer science. Unfortunately the research on why there is this gap is pretty limited. It seems that this has not been widespread on many big agendas, and therefore the data is limited. I feel that this causes a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. How can someone make the argument for what is causing the issues and how we can change that, if we don’t have the data to make those arguments? It comes as no shock that most of the leadership positions in the tech industry are occupied by men, and men have not historically seen this as big of a problem to invest in the data.
There are areas of speculation of where the issues lie, but more data is needed to understand why and how to change this. Her goal is to build models from companies and schools that are having success, and then make use of data to help spread. More companies need to start disclosing their diversity numbers, good or bad, to help drive the change and contribute to understanding of where all companies stand. Some companies are starting to make this commitment publicly. Intel, for example, has committed $300 million to strive to achieve full representation of women as well as other minorities by 2020 to their US workforce.
Companies that have women in leadership roles, tend to have larger female representation overall. If females can see that it is possible to advance and achieve high level positions, then they are more likely to be attracted to the company and stay to work towards those goals.
Not only is achieving greater parity in the industry paramount, but diversity across the board within in companies is so important. Companies are much more successful when they are diverse. Many studies show that team members who are diverse are more likely to work harder and achieve better results, as they are not as comfortable and complacent with their co-workers. Especially in the booming tech industry, gender diversity is so important. Gates cites the example of healthcare and Artificial Intelligence. Future generations of the elderly will be taken care of by Artificial Intelligence. Do we really want a male dominated industry to create the AI that will take care of women and men when they are older?
Personally, I feel there are so many compelling reasons why more women should want to, and deserve to, make the jump into this industry. To name a few:
- Tech is one of the most exciting industries to be in. Every company needs technology and it’s constantly changing and helping the world innovate.
- You have a chance to be in high impact roles
- Computer science offers great salaries
- The industry now offers great flexibility
- Many of the top tech companies offer top of the line benefits …with great profit sharing and long family leave policies
The biggest take away I’ve gathered from Melinda’s work and that of many others, if we don’t start looking closer at the problem and talking about the issues on a broader scale, the industry won’t make a change. I encourage all females to explore new careers in this exciting field!