Few of us, when we filled out our 2021 weirdness prediction pool entries, had “Bill Gates gets divorced because he’s allegedly a serial womanizer” on our cards.
Yes, in two years full of bizarre occurrences, the idea that the platonic ideal of the information technology dork — so uncool that his tech giant wasn’t even located in Silicon Valley –may be a womanizer didn’t even occur to many of us who didn’t have inside information. And yet, according to multiple reports, that appears to be one of the motivating factors behind the impending divorce between Gates and his wife Melinda.
Now, reports indicate it might also be why he was driven off of Microsoft’s board — and a separate report indicates he had a history of pursuing women in the office.
According to a Sunday report from The Wall Street Journal, Gates left the board of the company he founded in 2020 amid a probe into a romantic relationship with a Microsoft employee some felt was inappropriate, sources say. Gates had been re-elected to the board in December 2019 but left in March 2020.
“Microsoft received a concern in the latter half of 2019 that Bill Gates sought to initiate an intimate relationship with a company employee in the year 2000,” a Microsoft spokesman said. “A committee of the Board reviewed the concern, aided by an outside law firm to conduct a thorough investigation. Throughout the investigation, Microsoft provided extensive support to the employee who raised the concern.”
Through a spokeswoman, Gates denied the relationship was the reason he left the board.
“There was an affair almost 20 years ago which ended amicably,” the spokeswoman said, adding that Gates’ “decision to transition off the board was in no way related to this matter. In fact, he had expressed an interest in spending more time on his philanthropy starting several years earlier.”
The statements and the timing seem curious, however.
“In April 2019, Microsoft said it would change its process for handling employee complaints of harassment and discrimination. The company also said at the time it would add additional training and boost the number of human resources staff who address complaints, among other changes,” The Journal reported
“[Microsoft CEO Satya] Nadella announced the changes after women at Microsoft shared stories of sexual harassment and discrimination in an email chain within the company, the Microsoft spokesman confirmed. Quartz originally reported the email chain in 2019.”
Later in 2019, members of Microsoft’s board became aware of a letter from the staffer Gates had an affair with. The letter included details of the relationship and demanded changes to her role at Microsoft.
“In December 2019 — before the end of the probe — Mr. Gates was re-elected to Microsoft’s board at the annual shareholder meeting,” they reported. “As more became clear about the matter, board members were concerned Mr. Gates’s relationship with the woman had been inappropriate and they didn’t want a director associated with this situation in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the people said.”
The employee also asked that the letter be shown to Melinda Gates, although it’s unclear whether she saw it. The Journal had previously reported Melinda Gates had been looking to wind down the marriage as early as October 2019. That May 9 report indicated one of the reasons Mrs. Gates was pursuing the divorce was her husband’s meetings with disgraced financier and convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, who Mr. Gates says he had consulted about philanthropy and regretted meeting with.
In addition to Gates’ affair, a New York Times report, also published Sunday, alleged he’d tried to initiate other extramarital workplace dalliances.
“Long after they married in 1994, Mr. Gates would on occasion pursue women in the office,” Emily Flitter and Matthew Goldstein reported. “In 2006, for example, he attended a presentation by a female Microsoft employee. Mr. Gates, who at the time was the company’s chairman, left the meeting and immediately emailed the woman to ask her out to dinner, according to two people familiar with the exchange.”
“If this makes you uncomfortable, pretend it never happened,” Gates reportedly wrote in an email.
Lo and behold, it made her uncomfortable, and lo and behold, she pretended it never happened.
“A year or two later, Mr. Gates was on a trip to New York on behalf of the Gates Foundation,” The Times reported. “He was traveling with a woman who worked for the foundation. Standing with her at a cocktail party, Mr. Gates lowered his voice and said: ‘I want to see you. Will you have dinner with me?’ according to the woman.”
The woman reportedly laughed it off and nothing more came of it.
Overall, six sources who worked with Gates in his various ventures said his penchant for making clumsy passes at female employees created an awkward and toxic work environment.
There aren’t accusations Gates’ behavior was predatory or negatively affected the women’s careers. However, Gates is the face of one of the most powerful corporations on earth. The idea that an invitation to an extramarital affair might end poorly if refused — or at the very least, that there was a severe power imbalance involved — was more than just an implication.
At the very least, Gates isn’t being taken to the proverbial cleaners; the couple has already agreed to a separation contract to divide their roughly $130 billion fortune and both have pledged to give most of it away while they’re alive. That said, Bill Gates’ behavior raises serious questions about the atmosphere at Microsoft and the Gates Foundation.
Beyond that, however, the reports could mark an ugly end to what’s been one of the more surprising second acts in American corporate history.
Gates was long thought of as the Darth Vader of the computer industry; Microsoft’s questionable business practices and soulless software platforms made the company one of the most unloved monopolies in recent memory at the height of the Windows/Microsoft Office empire in the 1990s and 2000s. However, he managed to reinvent himself as a do-gooder whose focus on eradicating disease and poverty had his name — along with Melinda’s — being mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize candidate.
Not to say any of these reports erases the good that second act may have engendered, but this kind of caddishness — particularly when the power imbalance involved is off the charts — has certainly erased the goodwill. Whatever price Gates has to pay to get out of the marriage, it’ll hardly be a down payment on the amount he’d have blow in order to weather the gathering storm of bad press with some kind of dignity intact.
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