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Melinda Gates turns her focus to promoting women in tech

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The Moth: 'Global Stories of Women and Girls' Special Community Program Showcase Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Moth

Melinda Gates is taking time from her philanthropic work to build out a personal team dedicated to helping increase the number of women in technology-related jobs. Gates, who co-chairs the world’s largest philanthropic foundation with her husband and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, says the issue is close to her heart. She graduated from Duke University in 1987 with a degree in computer science (as well as an MBA and a bachelor’s degree in economics) and joined Microsoft shortly thereafter, where she worked for more than a decade.

"I care about computer science," Gates tells Backchannel in an interview published today. "When I was in school in the 1980s, women got about 37 percent of computer science degrees and law degrees then. Law went up to 47 percent now. In medicine, we were at 28 percent in 1984. That’s gone up to 48 percent. Computer science went from 37 percent to 18 percent."

"Computer science went from 37 percent to 18 percent."

Gates finds this data troubling, and she’s dedicated to putting resources toward figuring out how to both increase and maintain female representation in STEM fields. It’s unclear what form this initiative will take, and what the interplay between this new project and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will look like. But Gates says right now she is focused on learning more about the problem before making investments. Areas of interest she’s pinpointed include problems in the education pipeline that push girls away from STEM subjects, adequate role models for young girls interested in tech, and perception problems with male-dominated fields like the game industry.

"We all know there’s this leaky pipeline. It starts in elementary school, then middle school, then high school, and so on. I want to figure out the solutions," Gates says. "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]."

"That is not good for society. We have to change it."

Beyond education, Gates is looking at broader structural problems making it more difficult for women to pursue careers in technology. Gates calls out corporate blind spots, like Apple having once left out a menstruation feature in their health-tracking app, and the pitfalls with artificial intelligence and the rise of female-voiced assistants. She’s also trying to tackle issues with parental leave policies. These are all topics Gates feels would be aided by having female voices in the industry — and not just one or two, but a collective.

"I started to learn about it and say, 'My gosh.' To me, the tech industry is one of the best places to work right now. If I was working again, I would work in biological science or tech or a combination," she says. "Every company needs technology, and yet we’re graduating fewer women technologists. That is not good for society. We have to change it."