I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech's broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

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On Monday, Melinda French Gates resigned from the philanthropy organization she ran with ex-husband Bill Gates.

That she left is less surprising than that she stayed as long as she did. The couple divorced in 2021. In August 2021, the charity organization told CNN that it was doing a two-year trial period to see if the two of them could continue to work well together. They outlasted that period by almost a year.

French Gates will leave next month with an additional $12.5 billion, she said. She wants to dedicate that money to her “lifelong work on behalf of women and families.”

The Gates Foundation famously works on projects to help impoverished people, especially 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 engineers in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment that cause more than half of them to leave their companies, and often the tech industry, according to a recent McKinsey report.

At blame is the tech industry’s famed “brilliant jerk” or “bro culture” atmosphere that’s not great for anyone of any gender but particularly grinds women to a pulp.

And it was largely ushered in by prototypes like Bill Gates, who was famously harsh and impatient during his early years, so much that GQ once likened him to “an office bully.” Gates’ frenemy, Steve Jobs, had his own famed 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 "bro culture" at work leading to microaggressions ranging from being spoken over during meetings (64%) to being asked to “supply the food” for meetings (11%). Other research quantifies how women, no matter their seniority, are often treated like a junior-level worker yet they also receive less support, are more likely to be laid-off and less likely to be promoted, and so on.

Working in an environment like that is bruising! A woman who runs a hardware development team teared up when she told me how she was left out of a meeting with her team’s largest customer. She was expected to prep her male boss for the meeting and he kept contacting her to ask her for information as she sat in her nearby office but wouldn’t invite her to the literal table.

There’s a Reddit sub called r/womenintech that has more than 21,000 members in which a constant theme is dealing with male co-workers who belittle their work; or an ever-moving bar that blocks a promotion. “I don’t feel any hope about my ‘career’ anymore. I love IT work but the perpetual boys club has cured me of my ambition and destroyed my mental health,” wrote one poster to the sub explaining why she’s leaving the industry.

Plenty of men feel the same way about the tech industry culture. There are routine giant discussions on Hacker News about the misery one can expect in a coding career.

To be fair, moving the tech industry (and corporate culture generally) beyond these deep, hostile roots is work that French Gates has been doing since at least 2017, when she began to research why so many women leave the profession.

Through Pivotal Ventures, her own organization she’s run for many years before separating from Bill, she’s been trying to address root causes. Pivotal is part venture capital fund-of-funds, meaning it invests in other VC funds; part philanthropic; part lobbying effort; part anything else the billionaire wants to do. (Pivotal Ventures declined comment.)

When French Gates said in her resignation that she’s going to use her fresh cache of billions to work in service of women, she implied work on a greater spectrum: everything from body autonomy to investing in more women-led startups. For instance, Pivotal partnered with Techstars for a Future of Longevity Accelerator which featured a roster of such startups. She backs women-led VC funds like Miriam Rivera’s Ulu Ventures and Promise Phelon’s Growth Warrior Capital.

She’s a vocal advocate for family leave policies and modern caregiving systems; lobbies for mental health; funds partners who are bringing more diversity into tech and AI; and is now working on helping more women win elections.

In an op-ed on that topic last year for Time (owned, ironically enough, by another male tech billionaire, Marc Benioff), she wrote, “Ultimately, though, we can’t just keep pushing women into a broken system: We need to fix the system, addressing the full range of structural barriers that keep our government from looking like the people it’s intended to serve.”

The same is true for corporate systems.

What more can Melinda French Gates do?

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

I believe it's time for some kind of employee bill of rights that eliminates the draconian contracts most tech workers must sign as a condition of employment, even at startups.

While Biden’s 2022 federal Speak Out Act makes many non-disclosure, non-disparagement agreements for sexual assault or harassment allegations unenforceable, all non-disparagement clauses should be nixed. Individuals should be free to publicly speak about their personal experiences at their jobs, good or bad, without fear of being sued by the company or other retribution. Think how many more Susan Fowlers -- Uber’s famed culture whistleblower -- there would be if people felt free to speak. Better still: Think how the threat of outspeak could push humans in positions of power to build cultures that didn’t need outing.

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

And finally, I’d like to see corporate America end secrecy around employee pay as another area that would empower women and all employees.

Yes, this is a lot to ask one woman to do, given all that she is already doing. And even another $12.5 billion won’t be enough to make people be kinder to one another at work because humans are who they are. But the more pressure someone as powerful as Melinda French Gates can exert to change the structures, the better off we’ll all be.

Got a tip about a harsh tech company or startup culture you are experiencing? Contact Julie Bort via email, X/Twitter or Signal at 970-430-6112.