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Tech

I support Melinda French Gates in fixing tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Monday, Melinda French Gates resigned of the philanthropic organization she ran with her ex-husband Bill Gates.

That she left is less surprising than that she stayed so long. The couple divorced in 2021. In August 2021, the charity told CNN that it was doing a two-year trial period to see if the two could continue to work well together. They survived this period for almost a year.

French Gates will walk away next month with another $12.5 billion, she said. She wants to devote this money to her “lifelong work on behalf of women and families”.

The Gates Foundation works on projects to help poor people, particularly in developing countries, such as fighting malaria, polio or improving sanitation.

But I’m here to lobby for people who are considered pampered, not impoverished. Women tech engineers still face a shocking level of mistreatment that pushes more than half of them to leave their companies, and often the tech sector, according to a recent McKinsey report.

The blame lies with the tech industry’s notorious “brilliant asshole” or “bro culture” atmosphere, which isn’t ideal for anyone, regardless of gender, but especially beats women to a pulp.

And it was largely ushered in by prototypes like Bill Gates, who was famously harsh and impatient in his early years, so much so that GQ once compared him to “an office bully.” Gates’ nemesis Steve Jobs had his own reputation, as did other legendary billionaire founders with names like Larry and Charles.

Women in tech are bruised

In a 2024 Women in Tech survey, 72% of women reported experiencing a prevalent “frat culture” at work, leading to microaggressions ranging from speaking out during meetings (64%) to the invitation to “provide the food” for meetings (11%). ). Other research quantifies how women, regardless of seniority, are often treated as junior-level workers, but they also receive less support, are more likely to be fired, and less likely to be promoted, etc.

Working in an environment like that is deadly! A woman who leads a hardware development team broke down in tears when she told me how she was left out of a meeting with her team’s biggest customer. She was supposed to prepare her male boss for the meeting and he kept contacting her asking for information while she was sitting in her nearby office, but not literally inviting her to the table.

There is a Reddit subgroup called r/womenintech that has over 21,000 members and whose constant theme is male colleagues belittling their work; or a constantly moving bar that blocks a promotion. “I no longer have any hope about my “career”. I love IT work, but the perpetual boys club has cured me of my ambition and destroyed my sanity,” wrote a poster addressed to the submissive explaining why she is leaving the industry.

Many men feel the same way about the culture of the tech industry. There are regular giant discussions on Hacker News about how miserable one can expect in a coding career.

To be fair, moving the tech industry (and corporate culture in general) beyond these deep, hostile roots is work that French Gates has been doing since at least 2017, when it began researching the reasons for which so many women leave the profession.

Through Pivotal Ventures, her own organization that she ran for many years before parting ways with Bill, she is trying to tackle the root causes of the problem. Pivotal is part of a venture fund of funds, meaning it invests in other venture funds; partly philanthropic; partly a lobbying effort; to be part of whatever the billionaire wants to do. (Pivotal Ventures declined to comment.)

When French Gates said in her resignation that she would use her new billions to work for women, she implied that she would work on a broader spectrum: from bodily autonomy to investing in more startups led by women. For example, Pivotal partnered with Techstars for a Future of Longevity Accelerator, which featured a list of these startups. She backs female-led venture capital funds like Miriam Rivera’s Ulu Ventures and Promise Phelon’s Growth Warrior Capital.

She is a strong advocate for family leave policies and modern care delivery systems; lobbies for mental health; funds partners who bring more diversity in technology and AI; and is now working to help more women win elections.

In an opinion piece on this topic last year for Time (owned, ironically enough, by another male tech billionaire, Marc Benioff), she wrote: “Ultimately, however, we cannot We can’t continue to push women into a broken system: we need to fix the system, eliminating the full range of structural barriers that prevent our government from looking like the people it’s supposed to serve.

The same goes for business systems.

What more can Melinda French Gates do?

So what more can she – or any other interested billionaire – do with her extra helping of billions?

I think it’s time to pass some sort of employee bill of rights that eliminates the draconian contracts that most tech workers must sign as a condition of employment, even at startups.

While Biden’s federal Speak Out Act of 2022 makes many nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements regarding allegations of sexual assault or harassment unenforceable, all nondisparagement clauses should be removed. Individuals should be free to speak publicly about their personal experiences on the job, good or bad, without fear of company lawsuits or other retaliation. Think about how many more Susan Fowlers – Uber’s famous cultural whistleblower – there would be if people felt free to speak up. Better yet: think about how the threat of speaking out could push humans in positions of power to build cultures that didn’t need to be revealed.

Another thing that needs to go: draconian non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements that laid-off workers are forced to sign as a condition of receiving severance benefits.

And finally, I would like to see corporate America end the secrecy around employee compensation, as this is another area that would empower women and all employees.

Yes, that’s a lot to ask of a woman, considering everything she already does. And even $12.5 billion more won’t be enough to make people nicer to each other at work, because humans are what they are. But the more pressure someone as powerful as Melinda French Gates can exert to change structures, the better off we will all be.

Do you have a tip about a hard tech company or startup culture you’re encountering? Contact Julie Bort via E-mail, X/Twitter or Report to 970-430-6112.

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