Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

Melinda Gates on Being a Woman in Tech

A woman of incredible success, character and charisma, Melinda Gates is world renowned for her accomplishments in business and technology and for all she has done for society by giving back. Beyond inspirational, Gates has become an empowering role model for many women currently looking to pursue similar male dominated fields. In an interview with Gates, we get a glimpse of how she navigated her way through Duke and how she got to where she is today:

Her Campus Duke: What led you to choose Duke? Did you always want to attend here?

Melinda Gates: “Well, I was very lucky. My parents were determined to send the four of us to school anywhere we wanted to go. We were a very middle class family, but they worked hard for years and even started a small business on the side just to help them save for tuition. So when it came time for me to choose a school, I was able to choose Duke based on the fact that I knew I wanted to study computer science, and Duke had the best computer science program around. Once I got here, it was hard to leave! I actually ended up sticking around a fifth year to get a business degree, too.

I have a lot of wonderful memories from my time at Duke. Every time I’m back on campus, I visit the gardens where I used to spend quiet time getting centered before exams. I also have great memories of late nights in the Biological Sciences building, where my classmates and I used to compete in programming sessions—little prehistoric hackathons—and send the losers on dares in the creepy basement where they kept the frogs.”

HC Duke: What helped you to decide on majoring in computer science?

MG: “I’d always loved math and science, and I started thinking about how I could channel that into a career in computer science after my dad brought home an old Apple III computer. This was long before most people we knew had a computer at home, so it was a pretty special thing. Part of the reason my dad got it was to help with the bookkeeping for their business. But he also knew my sister and I were interested in math and science and wanted to encourage that.

I spent hours at that computer coding and imagining how this could turn into a career. I had a feeling that this technology was going to be transformative, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

HC Duke: How has mentorship helped you to get to where you are today?

MG: “I am a big believer that no one gets anywhere on their own, and I’m hugely grateful to the mentors I had along the way at all stages of my life. One of the first and also the best was my high school math teacher Ms. Bauer. In addition to being a great teacher, she was also getting her PhD in computer science at night and raising her three boys. I didn’t know a lot of women worked outside the home—much less who worked in computer science—so her example was an important one for me. But she also made a mark on my life by convincing our all-girls school to buy a set of computers so her students could learn right along with her. She wanted us to be prepared to take advantages of all of the opportunities this industry would present. She was a woman way ahead of her time.”

HC Duke: How have gender relations changed in tech industries since you began studying computer science?

MG: “A lot of people assume that since my own years studying computer science in the 80s, the number of women studying CS has gone up. It hasn’t. When I was studying here, 37 percent of the people earning computer science degrees were women. Today it’s 18 percent.

The gender gap continues to grow when women enter the workforce. Only 11 percent of senior leadership roles in the tech sector are held by women. The tech industry has an outsized impact on the world—so it’s really concerning to think that it doesn’t reflect the diverse society we live in.”

HC Duke: How do you foresee gender diversity improving in this area? Do you think there are specific steps that need to be taken by this generation of women?

MG: “When I was a young woman working in tech, I had a really good group of female colleagues to lean on—but as a group, we felt pretty much on our own. There was definitely no national conversation about gender equality in the industry or paid family leave or attracting and retaining female employees. That’s all new. And that’s a really, really promising sign that things are already moving in the right direction. So much of the bias against women in the workplace is unconscious bias, and the first step in fighting it is to shine a light on it.

But I also recognize that we have a lot further to go. So I’d urge young women in this generation to remember how important their brainpower is to the tech industry. White men don’t have a monopoly on great ideas, and they shouldn’t have a monopoly on the tech industry either.

The unfortunate reality is that society tends to give girls a lot of subtle hints that computer science is for boys and that girls’ skills are best applied elsewhere. So it’s on us to help correct those messages and make sure that young women know that there is a place for them in this industry, too. I’m lucky I had my dad and Mrs. Bauer to help me imagine possibilities for myself, and I’m determined to pay that forward.”

HC Duke: Why is it important to increase gender diversity in tech industries if there is already increased gender diversity in other areas of study (e.g., humanities)?

MG: “Well first of all, it’s the right thing to do. We have a moral obligation to make sure we aren’t shutting women out of entire industries just because they’ve made progress in others. But second, it’s the smart thing to do.

Technology shapes the future. If we don’t have women at the design table, we risk hardwiring today’s inequities into tomorrow’s technologies. We’re already seeing signs of this. When Apple first released its health kit, it gave the users the option to track all sorts of health events—but it completely overlooked menstruation. No way would that have been the case were there more women at the table. When we start talking about artificial intelligence, the dangers of excluding these perspectives get very real. Machines reflect the biases of the people who invent and design them. So we need to make sure that there’s diversity among them.”

HC Duke: Do you have any advice for women at Duke who are currently considering pursuing a male dominated major?

MG: “Two things. First, it’s a cliché, but just be yourself. If you’re in a male-dominated field, you won’t always have a lot of women role models to look up to, so sometimes you have to pave a path yourself in your very own way. When I first entered the tech world, I thought I needed to mimic the leadership style of my male peers, which often meant being a little more aggressive than was comfortable for me. To be perfectly honest, there was a time when I thought I might leave the industry entirely. But I made a deal with myself that before I left, I would try out my own leadership style—I would stop emulating my colleagues and do what felt natural for me instead. It worked, and I ended up staying for a decade.

Second, have confidence. Women tend to be our first, worst critic when we really need to be our own best advocate. There’s a lot of evidence showing that women tend to be less confident in their abilities than men are, even when their abilities are equivalent. Chances are you’re doing better than you think you are.” 

I am a senior at Duke University studying psychology and history, and I have been writing with Her Campus since I was a freshman. Having this incredible community of empowering women to build me up when I need support and to give me an outlet when I need to vent has been one of the greatest aspects of my Duke career! I am so sad to leave them soon, but I am excited to pursue my J.D. at Georgetown in the fall!
Similar Reads👯‍♀️