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Melinda Gates wants to fight 'sexist' data

In Silicon Valley, the billionaire philanthropist talks contraceptives, women's empowerment and her new book.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read
Oprah on stage with Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates' first book is part autobiography, part call to arms over women's issues. And she's even pitched it with Oprah.

Getty Images

One of Melinda Gates' pet peeves is that when people would discuss her and her husband's roles at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they'd call him the brains and her the heart.

"That's complete bull," she said. "Bill absolutely has a ginormous brain, but guess what, I have a pretty big brain too. And I have a really big heart, but guess what, my husband has a really big heart."

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that after nearly 20 years as a philanthropist, set to strategically give away the vast majority of their tens of billions of dollars from when Bill Gates co-founded and ran Microsoft , Melinda has written her first book to discuss what she's learned.

The book, part autobiography, part call to arms, is called The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World. It was released last month and has become a New York Times bestseller. She came to Dominican University of California in San Rafael, about a half hour north of San Francisco, to discuss it in an event Monday with the singer and actress Mandy Moore.

Gates isn't the only high-profile, tech-connected woman to speak out on social issues lately. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published her book, Lean In, in 2013, encouraging women to advocate for themselves and others at work more often. Laurene Powell Jobs, who runs the Emerson Collective, a combination think tank and investment firm, and has begun investing in journalism like The Atlantic, Axios and Pop-Up Magazine, education and art exhibits.

Gates, 54, discussed growing up in Texas, watching space launches that her aerospace engineer father had worked on. She got her start in technology early, when one of her teachers was inspired to get an Apple computer for students to learn on. Gates and her friends signed up and learned along with their teacher.

In college, Gates studied computer science and soon found her way to Microsoft. She said one thing she didn't like about working there was the "abrasive" culture. Within two years, she thought about leaving, in part because she found it had begun to wear off on her and she didn't like who she was becoming. 

Instead, she decided to push up against the company's culture and ended up staying for nine years. "Even though it was abrasive, I loved what we were creating," she said.

She left working for Microsoft when she had her first child, but she said Bill Gates encouraged her to find something to do within a few months. "He knew how much I liked to work," she said. "He knew I had that side of my brain, and I wanted to keep that alive."

In 2000, that work became the foundation, which has since become the world's largest private charitable organization. And in 2015, she started Pivotal Ventures, an investment firm outside her foundation, focused on supporting women and families in the US.

That's all helped make her into one of the world's most influential people, routinely showing up on the Forbes Power Women lists, among others.

(FILES) Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates (L

An early focus for Bill and Melinda Gates was vaccines. Here, in 1998, they announced a childhood vaccine program for the developing world.

Getty Images

Incomplete data

One of Gates' passions is contraception. She discussed it as giving choice to families in developing worlds who often fear having another kid because they won't be able to feed and educate them. "Contraceptives allow us to time and space the births," she said.

In one case, she shared the story of a woman she met who adored her children but begged her to take them back to the US for a better life. "To give them away to a stranger, you have to know how destitute their situation is," she said.

As she began tackling these issues, though, she learned the data isn't fairly tracked. For example, she said, economists don't track unpaid labor at home that women statistically do more of. On average, she said, women do 90 minutes more of chores or parenting than their partner, a phenomenon she called a second shift after work.

"Economists, which in the beginning a male-dominated field, measured productivity as 'productive work,' work you did in the workplace," she said. "We have look at this unpaid labor and figure out how to recognize it and reduce it, and we have to redistribute it."

"I used to think the data was objective," she said. "But in fact, data is actually really sexist."

She learned that when surveyors ask what income there is in a house, the men speak up first. Then the surveyors don't usually follow up with the same question for the women. As a result, their incomes and their lives outside the home aren't counted. "We don't collect data on women, and we don't collect data on their lives," she said. "We have to invest in good data."

Watch this: For these women, working at Amazon while pregnant ends in firings and lawsuits

Some data points that frustrate her are that less than 2% of VC funding goes to woman-founded businesses, and even less for women of color. 

And although the 2018 midterm election in the US saw a historic number of women run and win, in part as a response to the #MeToo movement, Gates noted that still only about a quarter of Congress is women. 

"At its current rate, it'll be 60 years until we have parity in Congress," she said. "My oldest daughter will be 83."

That's part of what inspired her to write the book and do the speaking tour, she said. 

"I really feel like we have this window of opportunity, y'know, between the #MeToo movement and so many women coming out and running for elected office in 2018," she said. "But these windows open and if we don't take full advantage of them, they pass us by. I want to make sure we use this window to create equality around the world." 

First published May 6 at 10:20 p.m. PT.
Update, May 7 at 5 a.m. PT: Adds details.