Melinda Gates Responds To James Damore's Google Memo, Talks Investing In Women-Led VC


Melinda Gates sat down with CNN's Poppy Harlow at CNNMoney's American Opportunity breakfast on Tuesday. First up in their interview was the controversial memo written by Google engineer James Damore and his 3,300-word-essay that it's women's biological differences that are at the root of their lack of leadership and equal pay in Silicon Valley.

"When I read that Google memo, I didn't know whether to be sad or whether to be outraged. And I think the sadness came first. The sadness to see that kind of point of view," she said in her first public remarks on the issue, writes CNN.

Gates didn't speak out at the time, feeling that enough critical voices were already in the mix. The global women's rights advocate cited an op-ed by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who shared a conversation with her daughter about the memo. Wojcicki noted that her daughter broached the hot topic with her, asking "Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?"

Wojcicki raised the topic high on AOC's radar: " . . . what if we replaced the word “women” in the memo with another group? What if the memo said that biological differences amongst Black, Hispanic, or LGBTQ employees explained their underrepresentation in tech and leadership roles? Would some people still be discussing the merit of the memo’s arguments or would there be a universal call for swift action against its author? I don’t ask this to compare one group to another, but rather to point out that the language of discrimination can take many different forms and none are acceptable or productive."

Women Studying Tech Plummets

In her Harlow interview, Gates went to the heart of the problem -- one that is pure math. When Gates was in college, 37% of computer science grads were female; the number has dropped to 18%. 

Speaking about the venture capital (VC) industry, Gates says the VC community "needs to clean up its act."

"I think they also fund what they know," Gates said. "Today, they know male, white, Caucasian, in a hoodie, looks like a geek, comes from an Ivy League or equivalent school. That's their funding criteria."

Without backing away from her primary commitment to global health -- with a strong emphasis on women and children and women's access to birth control -- Gates has moved to funding the VC problem with her own money.

Over the next 18 months, she will finance groups with funding models demonstrating a commitment to gender equity. Aspect Ventures, a San Francisco-based VC firm founded by two women. 

Earlier this month, Melinda Gates shared a far more terse assessment of the gender gap in Silicon Valley, inviting investors Kathryn Minshew, Theresia Gouw, Jennifer Fonstad and Reid Hoffman about how to attack the problem. 

Of deep concern to Gates is the reality that the VC gender gap is actually getting worse. Recode shares her op-ed:

We like to think that venture capital is driven by the power of good ideas. But by the numbers, it’s men who have the keys. Last year, female founders received about 2 percent of venture capital funding — and the numbers are moving in the wrong direction. While the average investment in companies led by men jumped 12 percent, to $10.9 million, the average investment in companies led by women dropped 26 percent, to $4.5 million. Statistics tell us that funders award women founders just a quarter of the funding they ask for. Male founders, meanwhile, are getting half.

The managing partner of one of Silicon Valley's leading VC firms admitted that one thing he looks for when deciding whether to invest is an entreprenneur who fits the Gates, Bezos, Andressen or Google model -- which is to say, "white male nerds who've dropped out of Harvard or Stanford." 

We'll add Steve Jobs to the list. 

In responding to Gates' request for input on the problem, Theresia Gouw and Jennifer Fonstad, founding partners of Aspect Ventures -- a Melinda Gates investment -- the women discussed an interesting action taken by Harvard in understanding why so few women became Baker Scholars. Forty percent of the Harvard MBA students are female, but only 20 percent achieve Baker Scholars or honors status. 

Instead of taking the James Damore approach of arguing women's biological inferiority in science and math, Harvard wondered if something was not working in the Harvard classrooms. 

Since 50 percent of each class grade depended on class participation, the dean put a scribe in each class to ensure proper attribution of students’ comments. As it turned out, this was ultimately the source of the problem. Teachers — both male and female — had been misallocating comments more frequently to the men in the classroom. By requiring a scribe in every classroom, class participation was properly recorded, and the number of women Baker Scholars increased to the same statistical percentage as was represented by women in the class overall.

A Female Cabal, Asserts James Damore


Men like James Damore have a very different view of the importance of women in Silicon Valley and technology in general. Writing for The New York Times, Nellie Bowles took up the subject last weekend with Push for Gender Equality in Tech? Some Men Say It's Gone Too Far. 

The premise of a fringe channel in Silicon Valley is that women are ruining the tech world. 

Bowles cites Nvidia engineer James Altizer, who said he realized a few years ago "that feminists in Silicon Valley had formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men."

Altizer said that the men's rights movement was gaining a lot of steam among younger men in technology, supporting his view that "It's a witch hunt" out there for men by "dangerous" human resources departments. "I’m sitting in a soundproof booth right now because I’m afraid someone will hear me. When you’re discussing gender issues, it’s almost religious, the response. It’s almost zealotry.”

The result of the alleged "witch hung" is some men in tech self-identifying as "contrarians", meaning that they do not follow the "diversity dogma." One wonders if men's defensiveness -- manifested in taking the offensive position against the alleged female cabal -- has accelerated with the proliferation of vulgar harassment revelations in Silicon Valley this year. They rival Fox News. 

Silicon Valley women are naming names in a new way of fighting back. These public sexual harassment condemnations have targeted Uber's co-founder Travix Kalanick; Dave McClure of the incubator 500 Startups, who called himself "a creep" before stepping down, and most recently the chief executive of Social Finance, Mike Cagney,  The reasons were not exclusively anchored in sexual misconduct, but they figured largely in the board's decision, explains the New York Times

Among the men coming to the aid of Damore is Paul Graham, founder of the influential start-up incubator, Y Combinator, who posted articles arguing that Damore's assertions about female inferiority in science and math was well-researched, writes Bowles . Links would be helpful, because the only blog post I can find on Y Combinator does not support her assertion. Read Ask A Female Engineer: Thoughts on the Google Memo

Startup investor John Durant wrote that “Charles Darwin himself would be fired from Google for his views on the sexes.” Google brings up John Durant, "Unfiltered contrarian. NYT bestselling author of The Paleo Manifesto and Spartan Fit. Founder of Wild Ventures" on Twitter. Note that Durant only lists $1.4 million in syndicate investor capital, four deals in the last year, which hardly makes him a significant VC player.

“What Google did was wake up sectors of society that weren’t into these issues before,” said Paul Elam, who runs A Voice for Men, a men’s rights group. He said his organization had seen more interest from people in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley has always been a men’s space, others said, echoing the argument of Warren Farrell, whose 1993 book, “The Myth of Male Power,” birthed the modern men’s rights movement, Farrell argued: “The less safe the environment is for men, the more they will seek little pods of safety like the tech world.”

Damore is thrilled with the response to his Google memo. “The emperor is naked,” he said in an interview. “Since someone said it, now it’s become sort of acceptable.”

Google’s main campus in Mountain View, Calif. “What Google did was wake up sectors of society that weren’t into these issues before,” said Paul Elam, who runs a men’s rights group.CreditChristie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

Google’s main campus in Mountain View, Calif. “What Google did was wake up sectors of society that weren’t into these issues before,” said Paul Elam, who runs a men’s rights group.CreditChristie Hemm Klok for The New York Times