In the past 30 years, Melinda Gates has become one of the most influential women in the business and technology worlds, building her brand successfully in those male-dominated industries. Now, she’s trying to teach others how to do the same.
Speaking at a South by Southwest keynote on Sunday, Gates talked about how women and minorities can have greater roles in business and tech, the challenges those groups still face and how workers in tech and other industries can overcome them.
Gates was joined at the event by TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot, Hearst Magazines chief content officer Joanna Coles and Nina Shaw, a prominent entertainment industry lawyer.
“The status quo … is holding all of us back,” Gates told a packed ballroom at the Austin Convention Center. “We absolutely know there are more women in the workforce. But whether the workplace has changed for women? I will say marginally.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Gates helped develop multimedia products at Microsoft before leaving the company to start her philanthropic foundation with her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Numerous studies show that women are often underrepresented and underpaid in the workforce across various industries. A study from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for example, used workforce data from 2014 to report that at the top 75 Silicon Valley tech companies, women make up only 30 percent of the workforce.
While progress for women and minorities has been made in business, the gap is still too large, Gates said, reporting that she has seen less than 2 percent of venture capital funding flow to women entrepreneurs.
Gates said the problem is largely rooted in leaders at companies, who are often male and white, investing “in what they know.”
“So you get this boy’s club” in business, Gates said. “It’s safe to invest in what you know, but they don't see the markets that women see.”
To get more women and people of color into important business positions, Gates said, VC companies need to begin disproportionately investing in those groups. Gates is an investor at VC-firm Aspect Ventures, which she said follows that model.
Companies also have to deploy in-house systems that rely on scientific evidence to hold them accountable, Gates said. And much of the accountability has to begin with people who are already in power, and by men themselves -- even if they feel uncomfortable by it.
“There are a lot of great men in the tech sector,” Gates said. “But you can’t use this moment -- because (men) are terrified (of doing something wrong) -- you can’t use it as an excuse of, ‘Well, I’m only going to have drinks with guys.’
“You can’t do that because (business) is all about relationships. We have to look at our own biases and hold ourselves accountable.”
Gates said she is optimistic more progress can happen in workplace culture and hiring because industries that were not responding to change before are responding now.
"Companies all of a sudden have to listen to what their employees want," Gates said. "I see the '#MeToo' movement finally causing a reckoning."