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.'”
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.