Speaking at Salesforce’s annual conference Dreamforce earlier this month, Melinda Gates discussed the state of women and girls around the world, what can be done to increase diversity in the workplace and why we all stand to benefit from it.
Melinda Gates earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and an MBA from Duke University before beginning her career as a Product Manager at Microsoft. As part of the first group of MBA candidates selected by Microsoft in the 1980s, Gates was outnumbered 9:1 by men.
It’s evident that we’ve made huge strides in equality since then. Yet Gates identified three key areas where enormous gaps remain, namely political representation (which is less than 20 per cent in the United States), women in business (just look at the heads of Fortune 500 companies and boards) and the technology sector.
When Melinda Gates was at college, 38 per cent of degrees in computer science were being awarded to women. But while law and medicine schools have seen significant increases in the number of female graduates, the percentage of females graduating in computer science has fallen from 38 per cent to just 17 per cent in the US today.
To put this into context, Gates elaborates, “at a time when technology has exploded and is providing some of the most exciting and well paid sustainable jobs, there are virtually no women coming through the ranks.”
Gates warns that if this doesn’t change, the consequences are serious. Using the American Constitution as an example, she challenged the audience to think about a constitution that was created by white men sitting round a table in 1787. In particular, how challenging and time-consuming it has been to make any changes to this constitution over the last few hundred years.
She argues that technology is similar to the constitution in that it is pervasive in society. Data and artificial intelligence is leading to early diagnosis in medicine, self-driving cars, greater precision in medicine and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Technology is affecting every aspect of our society, not just the world we work in of marketing and advertising. Not having women and other minority groups represented now means that we will affect how technology grows and develops, along with society.
Gates talked about a new health app that came out in the US which answered everyday health questions for consumers. And then it emerged that it had missed one key health topic that affects half the population on a monthly basis. Yes, menstruation. “That’s a pretty big miss”, she says.
When thinking about emerging technology and the huge growth we’ve seen in digital assistants like Siri and Alexa, Gates questions “Why are they always women’s voices? The workforce I work in also has male assistants. Why do we put women in the “assistant’ role and not the expert position?”
Even data can be biased, Gates continues, “AI is phenomenal and it could democratise society but it’s got to be created in the right way. Everyone has to have a seat at the table so the data you’re putting into creating the system is unbiased. For example, an app using photo recognition that can’t recognise skin colour or eye shape. Diversity has to be rich in the system. We are all part of society.”
What do we do?
Gates claims there’s a “leaky pipehole” from elementary school to high school to college and from college into industry.
“One point to look at is the college entry point. There’s only a few colleges that makes the problems that technology solves interesting to women. We need to stop putting engineering schools in the basement. Computer science should be a fantastic place where women want to pursue this area. Women should want to code.”
She argues transparency and data is also key. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has led the way in equal pay by opening his books and reviewing whether every employee is truly being paid equal pay for equal work.
Gates who co-founded the largest private foundation in the world, the Gates Foundation, says she has also been trying to “walk the talk”. Ah the Foundation, they now keep the recruitment pool open until they have enough female candidates come through so they can interview the same number of men and women.
“We all need to be role models. I’m trying to put my voice behind paid family leave, not maternity leave. Evidence has shown that if men participate in a child’s life early on, they play a role the whole way through. And we (as employers) have to make that possible.”