Melinda Gates: ‘I’m outraged with what’s going on’ in Silicon Valley

Before Melinda Gates became one of the most generous philanthropists in the world, she was one of the first female coders at Microsoft (MSFT).

She says she’s dealt with sexism her entire career, starting in high school when she first decided to pursue computer science.

“I experienced it from peers, professors, everyone. It wasn’t as bad inside of Microsoft; I faced it a little bit inside the company but it was just industry-wide. I always knew I had to prove myself,” she said at a breakfast hosted by CNN on Tuesday.

To this day, she says she’s constantly underestimated in many circles.

“I still walk in places with Bill and so many people — both men and women — assume he’s the smartest person in the room. And when I open my mouth, they sort of give me this look like ‘Wow, she has something to say.'”

Melinda Gates through the years
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Melinda Gates through the years
387450 01: Bill and Melinda Gates prepare to tee off August 27, 1994 at Farm Neck Golf Club, Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard. (Photo by Stephen Rose/Liaison)
New York, UNITED STATES: (FILES) Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates (L) and his wife Melinda (R) hold a press conference in New York 02 December to announce a 100 million USD gift to establish the Bill and Melinda Gates Children's Vaccine Program. Time magazine said 18 December, 2005 it had selected rock star-turned-activist Bono and philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates as its 2005 'Persons of the Year.' AFP PHOTO/FILES/Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
circa 1998: Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and his wife Melinda stand together, wearing formal attire, New York City. (Photo by Victor Malafronte/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 02: Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and wife Melinda are on hand at a benefit for the charity For All Kids at the Marriott Marquis Hotel. , (Photo by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW YORK CITY - DECEMBER 2: Business mogul Bill Gates and wife Melinda Gates donate $100 Million Dollar Check to the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health on December 2, 1998 at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
SEATTLE, UNITED STATES: Microsoft Chairman and CEO Bill Gates looks at his wife Melinda 16 September 1999 during a press conference in Seattle where they announced the Millennium Scholars Program that will provide financial assistance to high-achieving minority students who would otherwise be excluded from higher education. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation program will provide an annual investment of 50 million USD for 20 years. At any given point over 4,000 students per year will be Gates Foundation Millennium Scholars. AFP PHOTO Jeff CHRISTENSEN (Photo credit should read JEFF CHRISTENSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Bill Gates, wife Melinda, & Herbie Handcock during Experience Music Project Opening Gala at Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington, United States. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)
404302 04: Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates arrives at U.S. District Court with his wife Melinda April 22, 2002 in Washington, DC. Gates is taking the witness stand to give his first live testimony since the antitrust case was filed against the software giant in 1998. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
CALCUTTA, INDIA: Melinda Gates (2-L) of the Bill Gates Foundation addresses media representatives during a visit to an HIV-AIDS prevention project in Calcutta, 25 January 2004, as unidentified AIDS volunteer workers look on. Gates met with several of the city's sex workers in various red-light districts and pledged donations to further HIV-AIDS research in India. AFP PHOTO/Deshakalyan CHOWDHURY (Photo credit should read DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images)
CALCUTTA, INDIA: An unidentified Indian sex worker (R) garlands Melinda Gates (L) of the Bill Gates Foundation as she arrives to visit an HIV-AIDS prevention project in Calcutta, 25 January 2004. Gates met with several of the city's sex workers in various red-light districts and pledged donations to further HIV-AIDS research in India. AFP PHOTO/Deshakalyan CHOWDHURY (Photo credit should read DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON - MARCH 2: (NO UK SALES FOR 28 DAYS) HRH Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda pose for photographs after Gates is awarded an honorary knighthood at Buckingham Palace on March 2, 2005 in London, England. Mr Gates received a Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his outstanding contribution to enterprise, employment, education and the voluntary sector in the UK, and his contributions to poverty reduction . (Photo by Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images)
Melinda French Gates (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/WireImage for RCS & Co.) *** Local Caption ***
Bill and Melinda Gates attend the swimming competition. (Photo by liewig christian/Corbis via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JUNE 07: Melinda Gates speaks during a luncheon during the 2010 Women Deliver Conference at The Walter E. Washington Convention Center on June 7, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY MARIANNA BARRIAUX Co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Melinda Gates poses, on October 14, 2014 in Paris. omen are key to boosting economic growth in Africa and the developing world, Melinda Gates said Tuesday, as she stopped off in Paris to press crisis-hit France to keep funding projects for women and girls. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK KOVARIK (Photo credit should read PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)
SQUAWK BOX -- Pictured: Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates, in an interview on May 5, 2015 -- (Photo by: Lacy O'Toole/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Gates co-chairs her namesake Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a mission of improving people’s health and lifting them out of hunger and extreme poverty. But one year ago, she announced that she would be dedicating the next chapter of her life to improving the well-being of girls and women, specifically focusing on getting more of them into tech.

Among the top 100 venture firms, only 7% of the partners are women, according to a TechCrunch study. On the entrepreneur side, only 3% of female-led companies get funded.

“Money will move the industry for women,” Gates said.

‘I’m outraged with what’s going on but I’m optimistic’

To address this glaring inequality, Gates is investing with Theresia Gouw and Jennifer Fonstad at early-stage venture firm Aspect Ventures.

Now, 30 years after launching her career, Gates says she’s perplexed that such systemic sexism can still permeate the tech industry.

“I didn’t know whether to be sad or to be outraged. The sadness came first … the sadness to see that point of view. And the outrage to see that we’re writing about women like that in this day and age,” she said when she read a memo from a now-fired Google (GOOG, GOOGL) engineer blaming the gender gap in tech on biological differences.

Her husband first flagged the screed to her.

“He said, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ We were on a trip together and it had come out and he literally left me a post-it note because he was flying off somewhere else. Of course we talked about it on the phone that night. I just couldn’t believe it,” she recalled.

And it’s not just at Google, or even at Uber or SoFi, the online lender whose CEO resigned during a sexual harassment scandal. Gates said the problem is industry-wide, but there is a silver lining: women are speaking up.

“I’m outraged with what’s going on but I’m optimistic because we’re finally seeing the transparencies coming forward. You’re seeing a cacophony of voices that are speaking about this. Women are naming the truth, not being shamed. You’re finally starting to see some action by the industry,” she said.

“It’s not enough, but it’s the beginning of what will work to start to change the industry,” she added.

Gates said despite the fierce headwinds facing women in tech, she perseveres by “leaning into the suck,” a phrase she often uses with her three adolescent children. “If something’s hard, it’s going to suck. But everyone can learn to code, everyone can learn biology. It’s just a matter of putting your mind to it.”

True power comes with money, says Gates. And she’s putting money where her mouth is.

Melody Hahm is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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