Q&A: Melinda Gates opens up about tech industry, equality and 3 women who changed her life

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Melinda Gates, right, speaks with GeekWire’s Monica Nickelsburg. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Melinda Gates once famously set a rule in her kitchen. Nobody leaves until mom does. It’s a story she tells often during interviews and it comes up in her new book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” because it shows that balancing unpaid work is a challenge universally shared among men and women.

In the book, she’s careful to note that she is coming from a place of privilege and support, but still must negotiate the division of domestic labor.

“I’m describing my own scene, not because it’s a problem but because it’s my vantage point on the problem,” she writes.

That vantage point is what gives Gates’ new book its authenticity and resonance. As an early employee at Microsoft, she saw the formation of the industry culture that many women struggle with today. As co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she has traveled the world and witnessed first-hand the barriers that hold women back. As the wife of one of the most high-profile men in business and a woman with a hard-charging career in her own right, she’s experienced how difficult it is for women to raise a family and pursue their ambitions.

Each of these experiences informs Gates’ viewpoints and supports the central thesis of her book: removing barriers for women improves society as a whole. She sat down with GeekWire to discuss these topics and more before the final stop on her book tour in Seattle. Listen to our conversation above and read the edited QA below.

Monica Nickelsburg: We are here to talk about your new book, “The Moment of Lift.” This book is really about how, if you empower women throughout the world, then you lift up everyone. And you tell that story through all of these incredible women and their experiences, including your own. So if you could draw a line connecting each of them, what would it be?

Melinda Gates: It would be that we so often don’t look at the issues that women face in societies all over the world, these barriers. If we would recognize the barriers, which I write chapter after chapter in the book, if we’d recognize the barriers and lift those barriers, and then we invest in women, then women invest in everybody else and it changes our societies all over the world.

MN: Some of those barriers happen in the workplace, particularly in tech where you got your start. I really identified with the portion of the book when you talked about the early culture at Microsoft and how you struggled with the brashness and how aggressive and competitive it was. This is still a persistent problem in tech, so I’m curious what advice you would give to other women on how they can be courageous enough to be themselves and be vulnerable when oftentimes they’re the only woman in the room.

Gates: We have to start, a little bit, with how did tech get the way it is?  Because in the late 1980s when I was in computer science, we were on our way up. Computer science degrees held by women, we were graduating at a rate of about 37 percent. We were on our way up like law and medicine, which have reached now essentially parity for men and women in terms of degrees. Then in the computer industry, we dropped down all the way to 18 percent. We’re on a slight uptick now. We don’t know exactly why that is, but we believe it’s because the personal computer began to be marketed towards boys in the home. Then there were more computer games and so boys played those and by the time women went into the tech industry, they felt inexperienced because boys had so much more experience.

I think we have a persistent problem in the tech industry, but I’m also optimistic we can change it. When I think about the industry today, I think about not a leaky pipeline, which so many people talk about for women, but how do we create pathways in for women to help them understand what creative jobs these are? That you actually code in teams. That you don’t have to be a white guy in his hoodie. I think when we start to create more pathways in, for instance, that first class freshman year of computer science, when you make that welcoming … it begins to change things for women.

Todd Bishop: One of the things that struck me was that you were writing about your early experiences at Microsoft and that was in part, in large part, a culture that Bill created. Did you have any moments in the process of writing this book where two of you talked about that and discussed what that meant for you and your life? Because it was a dramatic impact. You talked about leaving at one point.

Book review: Melinda Gates’ ‘The Moment of Lift’ should be required reading for everyone

Gates: Bill and I have talked about this over the years, not during the time I was at Microsoft because it would be inappropriate when I was there for me to discuss work with him, I felt, if I was still managing teams, which I was. I was there for nine years. I had a fabulous career. But yes, Microsoft was started by a group of very young guys, and I would say that you’re not at your most mature when you are around age 21 and starting a company. Some things got set in motion there and patterns that now I think Satya is working very consistently to break down, and he’s very clear about that.

What I will say about Bill is that he has become a much more mature leader over time. The way we run the foundation both as true equal partners, and what we expect of ourselves as leaders and what we expect of others, is the culture that I think more people would like to work in. It’s been an interesting journey for us as a couple to name what we want and need in culture and it’s been a maturation process for both of us.

MN: In some ways, things haven’t changed that much since when you were there though. There was that email chain that went around where a lot of women were describing experiences where they didn’t really feel supported at Microsoft. Is that discouraging to you?

Gates: I am optimistic and the reason I am is it takes transparency to create change. Satya and Kathleen, who’s the head of HR, have been very outspoken about what they expect in their company culture. I think they’ve been creating change and I think this latest wave, where you saw so many women come forward with their stories, meant that they felt safe bringing their stories forward and you see Microsoft’s response in the last few weeks. What I know is that consistent transparency followed by a consistent response is what will create change. So I’m quite optimistic.

TB: What would be your message for the tech industry, big picture on these issues? If there was one thing you could change, if there was one action item, what would it be for the tech industry?

Gates: For the tech industry there is no silver bullet, but what I would say is absolutely make sure that in every single meeting you’re in, women have a seat at the table. Not one woman. Many women. Women cannot act alone on behalf of other women. You want to have the most creative products? You want to sell to the biggest market? Which is actually women who make purchasing decisions on behalf of the family. You should have women at the table, and if you don’t, then it’s time you do and have transparency. Make sure that you are promoting women equally to men. You’re paying women equally to men and you’re walking the talk. What I’m starting to see, because of the labor force shortage, the supply of women coming out with computer science degrees, they’re voting with their feet and they’re choosing now companies that have the culture they want. So if you don’t get with the times, the times are going to leave you behind.

MN: One really striking part of the book is the health worker in India who asked you if you would do anything to feed your children. She was referring to a group of sex workers who you were attempting to help prevent the spread of HIV through. And it was kind of a challenge. She wanted you to be able to empathize with these women and see that under their circumstances anyone would do the same thing. I’m wondering what kind of lessons you can learn from that sort of radical empathy and apply to the business community for men or anyone who’s in a position of power to empathize with an underrepresented group?

At the final stop on Melinda Gates’ book tour, attendees sign a wall to “commit to the lift,” explaining how they will help to lift barriers for women. (Christopher Farber/Gates Archive)

Gates: I think we’ve had a certain work culture for a long time in the United States that really goes back to the 1950s and 1960s. We still have that sometimes embedded in our brains when we think it’s a culture where men work and women stay home and are taking care of everything at home and that is not the truth anymore. Forty-seven percent of the U.S. workforce are women, and what I know is that when men and women can talk about what they fully care about in the workplace — which many of them care about their families and their loved ones and their friends — when they can bring their whole selves to work, whether they’re a man or a woman, including empathy, then you start to change the workforce.

I’m starting to see that in places. I see it in a lot of young startups. I see it in the healthcare industry quite often because there are more women working in that field. Again, I’m impatient for things to get better quickly, but I do think they are getting better for women. I think this is the best time to be a woman in the United States that we’ve ever seen before.

MN: I want to talk about unpaid work.

Gates: Me, too.

MN: I was telling Todd on the drive over that since reading your book, I’ve been asking for a lot more unpaid work to be shared around my house and it’s been great. It’s been great for everybody, but I think we have to back up before we jump into it because there are a lot of people who this still doesn’t really register to them, this concept of unpaid work. How would you frame it in a nutshell?

Gates: This is one of the barriers I do bring up in my book. First of all, unpaid labor or work are the things that we do in our homes. Some of them are things we want to do, caring for our loved ones, for the elderly or young children, but many of the things we do in our home are things that simply need to get done; chores, lunchboxes, doing the dishes, doing the laundry, shopping. And there is no place in the world where women and men do the same amount of unpaid labor. In the United States, women do 90 minutes more per day than their husband, 90 minutes more.

That’s time that she could be in the gym, investing in her health, maybe getting another degree, maybe doing something else she wants to do after work. We need to look at that unpaid labor and we need to figure out, are there certain things that help us reduce that labor over time? But it’s really, at this point, it’s about redistributing in our households and naming what we need and our spouses stepping up and say, “Hey, you know what? Just because I came into the marriage assuming you would do that or assuming I wouldn’t do that, I need to step up and take more responsibility in the home.”

MN: Is there anything that employers can do to balance the scales of unpaid work?

Gates: Well, I am big on talking about paid family medical leave in the United States. We are the only industrialized nation, the only one, that does not have paid family medical leave, and so 17 percent of the U.S. workforce is all that has access to paid family medical leave. I believe that if we pass a robust, a good policy for this, people will start to rebalance and think about men’s and women’s roles both in work and at the birth of a child, or when there’s an aging parent. Quite often a man and a woman have aging parents and who takes care of them? If you had paid family medical leave and both men and women actually take it, like countries like Sweden who’ve had it for a long time do, it starts to change the balance of how we think about work and family life.

MN: I just spent quite a bit of time researching paid leave for a story and the Gates Foundation came up because you really pushed the limits of how comprehensive a paid leave policy you can offer as an employer. It was a year, but you found that that was not really practical and recently reduced it to six months plus a $20,000 stipend. What were some of the lessons you learned from that?

Gates: Yes, we rolled out our paid family medical leave policy three years ago. We were one of only two companies in the United States that had that robust of a paid family medical leave policy. As we worked with it and with the organization over three years, what we found was that it was putting more burden on the work that we want to get done in the world than we wanted it to. We believe in balancing family and work life, but we felt we had tipped a bit too far in terms of the family piece of it.

What we decided to do, that we also have some experience with from my own office, Pivotal Ventures and also from Bill’s office Gates Ventures, was that six months seems to be the right amount, for now, of paid family medical leave. A family can absolutely have time to care for their elderly, their loved one. Care for the birth of the new child, but then $20,000 to support childcare as they come back into the workplace. That seems to be about right in terms of men and women then coming back to work. I think that’ll help us be the most efficient as an organization with the resources that we have and support families.

MN: What if it’s a startup that doesn’t have the kind of endowment that the Gates Foundation does, but it’s bringing up the same kind of challenges that you raised, that it’s too challenging to get anything done? We’re in growth mode. We’re small. We’re scrappy. How can a smaller company like that still support women?

Gates: I’m watching some of these small companies do very interesting things. I’ve seen a few startups, actually, a couple here in Seattle decide that they’re going to allow the mom, while she’s still nursing, to bring her baby to work at times. They create a space for that, a space for a caregiver, for the child and for the mom to go, not just to nurse the child, but for the child to be there either part or all of the day. There are creative ways you can do it. I’m not saying it’s easy to do, but I think the message you send to employees about how we care about family and work changes and what we find is that employees who feel their employer understands their overall life is likely to stay longer at a company.

TB: One of the remarkable things about the book is that you’re telling the stories of women that you’ve met along the way, but there are also women who’ve influenced your life. I wondered if you might, in succession, tell us about these three women from the book; Mrs. Bauer, your computer science teacher, the unnamed IBM manager who told you to go work for Microsoft, and Anna.

Gates: Mrs. Susan Bauer was my math teacher in high school. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school and she went to a conference one weekend and she saw computers. They were actually Apple II computers. She came back from the conference and went to the head nun of the school and said, “We have to get these for the girls.” She convinced the head nun to put up the budget and they bought five Apple II computers for us, 600 girls. I was part of the very first small coding class. What I learned in that class was how much I loved coding. I learned from a teacher who let us get out in front of her. She taught me that to be a leader you don’t have to actually know everything. Her getting those computers influenced my path. So by the time I went to college, I knew I wanted to study computer science.

Melinda Gates draws on her extensive on-the-ground experience in developing countries, as well as her career in the tech industry, for insights in her new book, ‘The Moment of Lift.’ In this photo, the co-chair trustee, Bill Melinda Gates Foundation tours FPAM (Family Planning Association of Malawi) clinic in Lilongwe, Malawi. Photo: Gates Archive

I went to Duke University for undergraduate to study computer science and graduated in that, got my MBA. As I was coming out of business school at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, I had a longstanding job offer from IBM. I’d worked for them in Dallas for several summers. Over my spring break, I went back to IBM in Dallas. The hiring manager that I met with, a woman, said, “Are you ready to accept our offer?” I said, “Well, I interviewed a lot of other places, turned them all down. I have this one more small company I’m going to go interview with and then I’ll probably come back and take this job.” And she said, “Would you mind me asking who that is?” I said, “Well, it’s this little company called Microsoft in Seattle.” This was 1987. Microsoft was still less than 1,700 employees. She said, “Oh, I know that company. Do you want a piece of advice?” I said, “Sure,” and she said, “If you get an offer from Microsoft, you should accept it.” She just floored me. This was my hiring manager. I said, “Why?” She said, “As a woman, I think you would do quite well at IBM. Have a successful career, but there are levels here that you’ll have to move up through systematically. At a young startup like that, if you’re as good as it seems like you are, I think your rise would be meteoric.” And I thought, “Wow, what an amazing piece of advice.” Sure enough, I interviewed and got a job offer and I knew I should take it.

MN: And it turned out to be very good advice.

Gates: It did. It changed my life in many ways. But what I liked about Microsoft was they were creating the future. And that’s what I love about tech for women, and for men too. It is our future. We are creating our future through technology. They’re some of the best jobs, the best paying jobs, many of them, in the United States. They’re also creating the future that we want. That’s why I’m so passionate about making sure that women and people of color have a seat at the table.

The other story is about Anna. When our oldest daughter was 15, Jenn, she and I went to live for several days in Tanzania. A family said they would take us into their home. It was actually their goat hut that we stayed in. They were a Maasai family. Anna’s the mom of the family and, Sanare is her husband. We stayed over several days and Jen and I followed Anna around her farm all day doing the tasks that Anna does. We also followed Sanare on one day, and we chopped wood with Anna. We carried water with Anna, which is what women are expected to do in the developing world. They carry the water, not the men. And we cooked.

I cooked in the cooking hut probably six hours that day and we did the dishes, the women, Anna, and her sister and her daughter at night in the dust, at 10 at night under the stars. What I learned from Anna was about unpaid work. After I had been cooking with her for quite a number of hours, I was interviewing her about her life, and she said she was clearly in a relationship she wanted to be in. It was a loving relationship, Sanare confirmed that later, her husband.

But she said, “I almost left Sanare at one point.” I said, “Really? Why?” She said, “Well, the birth of our first son, Robert,” she said, “I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t carry water and nurse my baby.” Sanare confirmed that he came home one day and there was Anna sitting on the doorstep with her bag packed, baby in her arms and she said, “I’m leaving you,” and he was stricken. He was heartbroken. He said, “What do you mean you’re leaving me?” And she said, “Well, your land is very arid. I’m going to go back to the more lush homeland that I came from because I can’t do this anymore.” So he asked that simple question, which is, “What can I do?” And she said, “Well, you could carry water.” Maasai men do not carry water, and Sanare said he would. So he started walking to the well. The other Maasai men made fun of him.

He was walking miles a day and they said he was bewitched, but they started walking with him. So inadvertently they were walking in Anna’s footsteps. After a while, the men all started to bike to the well and get water and they realized how exhausting it was. Finally, they came up with this idea, “Why don’t we build water pans around our villages?” And they did. That story of Anna naming what she needed so she could nurse and care for her son and her husband responding, that is unpaid work. That is a real relationship where you work through issues of naming what you need and somebody responding.

Melinda and Bill Gates at the University of Washington at a December 2017 ceremony celebrating the UW’s new Gates Center. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

MN: And it’s amazing because you had such a parallel experience, albeit not as extreme, but something very similar happened with you and with Bill and the result of him taking over was also very similar. Do you mind telling that story?

Gates: With our first daughter, Jenn, it came time for her to go to kindergarten. We both agreed the school we wanted her in, but it was not near our home in Seattle. And I could see all these years ahead of driving on the freeway and in the traffic in Seattle. We had two children at this point. So I had said to Bill, “Look, let’s just wait until she’s in third grade and we’ll put her in that school.” He said, “No, no,” he felt strongly she go at kindergarten.

He was working full time as CEO of Microsoft, and I just said, “Driving five days a week, twice a week in traffic,” I could see it ahead. He said, “What can I do?” Before I even was able to answer, he said, “I could drive two mornings a week.” I said, “Really you would drive two mornings a week?” Because it was almost an hour commute for him back to Microsoft, which was further away and he said, “Yeah, I will.”

He started doing it and about three weeks into the school year, a mom sidled up to me and said, “Do you notice anything different going on in this classroom?” I said, “Yes, so many dads are coming in and dropping off.” She said, “Yeah, we went home and said to our husbands, ‘by gosh, if Bill Gates can do it, so can you.’” So inadvertently we role modeled by asking what I needed and Bill offering, we role modeled something in the community and that’s what change looks like.

TB: One common theme in your story is that you don’t bow down to institutions just for the sake of doing so. I’m thinking, in particular, the Catholic Church and contraception. What did you learn from that experience where you were on the front page of the Vatican newspaper about how to approach it in a way that creates change while still being able to exist within the institution?

Gates: What I have learned is to look for our common humanity and look at where we are the same and not different. And what I see in parents all over the world is that they love their children and they have the same hopes and dreams for their children that we have here in the United States. Yet women can’t fulfill their hopes and dreams for their children because of lack of access to contraceptives, voluntary access. So as I would be traveling and, women kept bringing this up over and over and over to me, I honestly, because of my Catholic roots, kind of wanted to turn away from it and say, “No, somebody else will do that.” But the truth is 220 million women were asking us for this tool. So I finally realized I would overcome my own fears. I learned how to be a more courageous leader, quite honestly, and how to say, “What do I believe in?”

As I started to realize, I have met so many women … who have died in childbirth. Men, women who say, “My sister died in childbirth.” “My mom had struggled.” “We know babies who’ve died.” I thought, “It’s a man-made rule to say we women can’t use contraceptives” and yet my religion also says, “Love thy neighbor.” If you love thy neighbor and you empathize with them, you deliver the tool that women, and more than 90 percent use [it] in the United States. I learned that I needed to speak my truth even if my church disagrees with me. And my truth is that I believe in saving other lives.

MN: I think that story reflects a broader theme throughout the book, which is often in your work in the Gates Foundation, you go in seeking to address a problem like women’s maternal health and realize that you have to get to the root of the problem, which is a lot more complicated. I’m thinking of the sex workers in India whom you wanted to get to use condoms to stem the tide of HIV and they told you, “We need you to do something about violence.” And it was a similar situation where it didn’t seem it was quite in the Gate’s Foundation’s charter, but you ended up going there. So I wonder if there are lessons from that that can be translated to some of the inequity that women in the American workforce face? We are seeing a lot of the symptoms. How do you get to the root of the problem?

Gates: I think you listen. You listen to women and you hear what they’re telling you and you hear the cacophony of voices when they say to you, “This isn’t working. Yes, you may want us to lead more but we can’t lead if we need time off to care for our loved ones. We’re in charge of taking the child to the doctor and being there for the homework and being there to comfort them when they have tears. You’re putting us in an impossible situation.” Then you listen to what women are telling you. You collect the data and you decide to create change and all you’ve got to do is set a goal and do it. Paid family medical leave, we just need a policy. We need to stop acting like it’s possible to do what women are doing all over the United States, which is working and raising families. We just have to listen to them and then we have to move forward, set goals, and make things happen. And stop saying, “Hey, these issues are the fault of women.” No, these are barriers that society’s created that have held women back.

MN: Melinda Gates, thank you so much for joining us.

Gates:  Thanks for having me, Monica and Todd.



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