Melinda Gates Wants Tech to Wake Up to Women’s Empowerment

For almost 20 years, Melinda Gates has been on a mission to make the world better. When she and her husband launched the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, they knew only that they wanted to use their Microsoft wealth to stop children born in poverty from needlessly dying of ailments that were easily cured in developed nations. Since then, their mandate has evolved to include curing disease, developing and delivering new medications, lifting communities out of poverty, and increasing access to opportunity and education. A few years ago, Gates realized one thing unified all those goals: empowering women.

She is not alone. Experts working on the world’s biggest problems agree that by helping women, you help everyone. Want to solve climate change? Empower women. Lower infant mortality? Empower women. Cure AIDS? Empower women. Make your company more profitable? Empower women. The list goes on.

Gates’ memoir, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, chronicles how she came to realize this. Through her foundation work, she’s spent two decades traveling the world, meeting with men and women in extreme circumstances—people who had to walk six hours a day to fetch water, who’d been forced into child marriage, who could not read, who had no access to farming tools or seeds that could feed their families. She writes about how these interactions opened her eyes to the fact that women’s oppression was the root cause of much of the suffering she and the foundation were working to cure.


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    I sat down with Gates to discuss why the tech industry must embrace women’s empowerment, why so much gender equality work has to happen at home, what international aid can teach developed nations about equality and inclusivity, and why you should put your phone down.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

    Emily Dreyfuss: Reading the book, I felt like I got to know you. It was very brave to be so personal. How are you feeling about it now that it's out in the world and people are asking you prying questions about your marriage and life?

    Melinda Gates: It's hard, because I don't want to say a whole lot more. Obviously, I feel vulnerable. But the reason to do that is that I do think people can hopefully connect with me a little bit and not put a label on me. I want others to be on this journey with me. Everything I've learned from 20 years of travel, as you heard the women's stories in this book, they called my life to action and I hope we call others to action. That's the reason to be vulnerable: for people to understand who I am and how I view this, given all these things I've learned.

    ED: I loved how open you were about your own journey to realizing the importance of empowering women. You came to it slowly. And I was even struck in the beginning how you talked about the way in which it took you years, decades, to embrace the word feminism and the label of feminist. What do you think needs to happen for the industry as a whole—tech and San Francisco and Silicon Valley and Microsoft even—to have that same kind of awakening? There's still a hesitancy to embrace the idea that empowering women empowers everyone.

    MG: I think sometimes, not everywhere, but sometimes companies in tech these days think empowering women would be a nice thing to do as opposed to it's going to really help fuel and drive your business. And if they're looking at it as a nice thing to do, then they're putting some Band-Aid solutions on things. But if they understand that it will be fundamental to them being successful, they'll actually take it up and make change. And what gets measured is what gets done. And so I do think the pressure publicly that's being put on the tech industry to measure and to be transparent, I think that's helping.

    The supply of women and people of color, unfortunately, is still low going into tech, but I think we can use that to our advantage because the companies want to get their numbers up. But they're not going to be able to attract that talent if they're not actually truly doing things to change their companies. Because I'm hearing young women who are graduating with computer science degrees, they have five job offers on the table. And they're looking to see—yes, they want fabulous pay, they care a lot about the culture and so they will turn down the companies that they hear are not actually doing the real work and are unwelcoming to women once you get inside of them.


     

    And I think women are smart. We vote with our feet, and young women I know are saying "I don't want to work at those three companies, but I'm going to consider these two," and I think that will start to change things.

    ED: So how can we get more women and people of color to enter tech in your opinion? You hear about the pipeline problem. In the book you mentioned that shocking statistic that there are fewer women graduating with computer science degrees now than when you were graduating from Duke with one in 1987. How do we fix that?

    MG: I think it's a mistake to think of it as a pipeline. I think that's an old term that many many people still use, but what I would say is let's stop looking at it as a pipeline. Let's look at it as those pathways. What are the on ramps? What are all the different ways we can get women into tech? There is no one way. Let's invest in all of those different ways. When you start doing that then a young woman or person of color can start to say to themselves, "Oh, wait a minute, this university that I'm considering, their intro computer science class is not all theoretical, like when I go into it, it will actually have real world problems." That attracts women. Even women who go to colleges and don't think they want to study computer science, if the intro course is welcoming and their friends are saying, "Wow, I had a phenomenal experience," they're more likely to try it and then they're more likely to persist.

    And so I think we have to make the investments. And we are also making investments at the high school level, the middle school level to keep girls in. The more girls can see they can be good at this and that this industry is creating the future and is creative and does have some of the best pay out there, the more we can get young girls and women in it and persisting, the more will start to change the whole ecosystem. It's tricky right now, because women need to see role models, right, and they need to see assistant professors and associate professors and professors teaching computer science.

    ED: In the book when you were talking about unpaid labor, it got me thinking about that in the context of professors of computer science or any sort of STEM field, where women are so underrepresented. There are so few women academics in those roles and they are often tasked with doing the extra work of recruiting more women or recruiting diversity, and then that gets in the way of their time to do research and then they get fewer grants and then they get fewer awards and they're less famous. Do you think that's a sort of catch-22? Where it falls on women to do the work to help other women, but that work in itself is sometimes a form of unpaid labor?


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    MG: Yes. And so we need to have men come along on this journey. And there are many enlightened men and we need to say to them, "Link arms with us and you all help recruit other women. You all help role model the right things in a business meeting. If a young woman speaks up and a man re-explains her point, you call the man to task. Don't rely on a woman to do it." Or if a man interrupts a woman or a woman interrupts a woman, a man or a woman needs to say not OK.

    So that's why for my book I want to make sure that it's not just women lifting up women, it has to be other men. And then they end up role modeling for other men what the right behavior is. And so if you believe in equality, which many men do, don't just believe it in theory. Here are some practical things you ought to be doing inside your company or your home or your community or all three.

    ED: I was struck by how many of the conversations that led to change—whether it was in Ghana or in East Asia or here or in your own life—the conversations were happening at home, where the woman was navigating an intimate relationship with a man. In some cases there were workshops, or group support settings or just a strong woman standing up for herself, like the young woman you and your daughter met in Tanzania, Anna, who just gave her husband an ultimatum that made him actually go and get the water himself so she had time to nurse their child. Those intimate interactions led to some sort of enlightened awakening on the man's part, that then led to actual change. So my question for you is what are some ways we can make that happen on a societal level instead of just one on one in intimate settings? Or do you think the personal relationship between men and women is where the seeds of change grow?

    MG: I think it often needs to start in our homes. That's why I have that whole section on unpaid labor, because if as men and women we don't look at the amount of labor women do, the 90 extra minutes in our homes in the US, we don't even start to realize what women are tasked with. But I think when we start to make that change, you start to look at these other pieces in society, in community, in your workplace. And so then men and women start to make changes.

    I do think in society there are other places to have this awakening. There are definitely moments that we're all learning. And so what happens is we role model in society what's right. Think about when you have a new baby, right? I don't know about you, but I went to parenting classes. Your husband goes to parenting classes usually sometimes these days, or goes to the breathing class. There are all kinds of places like that where you can get this information and then men also see other men participating.

    The other thing we have with this generation coming up behind us is many of the young men's mothers worked. Forty-seven percent of the workforce are working women. So they grew up under a mom who was working, they saw what she did at work and at home. So it's probably changed their point of view. Now has it fully changed it? I don't know. But all of these things start to change society.

    I was saying to someone just this morning, one of my friends before I left town: I was out walking in the park in Seattle this weekend, I saw four dads with infants in snugglies and a couple of them had a dog, at least two. And I thought, good for them. Right? I mean, I have to say back when I was having my kids, you didn't see very many men with snugglies. But I'm thinking great, they're not only doing it—I don't know how they got there—but there are also other men in the park who notice them. And women notice it, and maybe go home and ask for it, right?

    ED: I totally agree with that. I'm part of that middle hinge generation between Gen X and Millennials, I'm the oldest Millennial. And I feel like in my generation I see good fathers everywhere, very involved fathers: doing bedtimes, changing diapers, and that's all normalized. But when I was managing teams in media, which has a lot of women but not a lot of women in leadership, I was horrified to realize that we did not have equitable parental leave policies.

    There’s a section in the book where you talk about how years ago at Microsoft you helped someone on your team take family leave when his brother was sick. It resonated for me because I think that's still happening, those informal leaves. I helped my colleague when his wife had a baby. I just said, you know, you're just going to write less, you're just gonna file less or I'm telling them you're working on a big story but disappear and go take care of your son. Here was a father who wanted desperately to be involved, to help his wife, to share the caregiving load, but the company did not have the structures to support him. I think policies are vital but they're not caught up to the social change around us. What can be done to accelerate that?

    MG: Yeah, so this is why I just think paid family—not maternity— paid family medical leave is important. We're the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn't have it, doesn't have a mandate for it. Seventeen percent of our labor force has it. Only 17 percent.

    ED: That's insane.

    MG: We haven't made it OK either for moms or for dads to take. This was an interesting thing: When Mark Zuckerberg took two months off with the birth of his first daughter, I was in a meeting actually in my office where we had a group of moms who were like 40 and older, including me. And then I had two young women who were there who were in their early twenties. It was the day it came out, and we were like, "Oh that's great!" The older moms were like, "Great, he took two months, he's role modeling. He's the head of a tech company. Isn't that awesome?" And the girls who are in their young twenties were like, "He only took two months?" And I thought, Fabulous. They're like, of course he should be taking more like four months off, or in their view maybe even a bit longer because they've heard of these policies in other countries. It's why I actually think in the next election we should demand that that's part of the presidential debate: paid family medical leave.

    The other thing is as a society we now have an older generation aging. So here's what I've learned from my friends: men and women, not surprisingly, have aging parents. Usually a woman, if she's really thought about this, when she's older, when those parents start to age, her friends need to tell her, "Don't take care of his parents. He takes care of his parents." And that's why we need paid family medical leave, so both, either, can take care of the aging parents. That can't fall just to the woman. And then as you know at the birth of a child, if a man participates we have great research that shows he's much more likely to participate over his whole life in the rearing of that child. And the men will tell you. I was just in Sweden a few months ago, and the men were horrified to think there was so little paid family medical leave in the United States. They were like, "It's our right to take care of our kids. We want to be there to take care of our kids!" They're like, "Are you kidding?" They're like, "We would miss out."

    ED: To me that is actually one of the saddest parts of the conversation in America: We forget how much men gain from spending time with their children. In the book you talk about how caregiving is something that comes naturally to everyone, if only it's encouraged. This was true even for the Gates Foundation. You write about how you yourself had come to the conclusion, from looking at all these disparate policies and issues you were working on, that empowering women would help everyone in every way. And yet there was this period of time before the foundation would agree to a consensus that it would be OK to say empowering women is our mandate. Was that because of pushback from men in the foundation, who felt like if we say we're empowering women it says we only really care about women?

    MG: Well, I think organizations take a while to update, and we were very science-oriented at the foundation and still are. We will always believe in research. We'd already had to move the organization towards understanding the importance of delivery—how to get resources where they are needed—and I was a piece of that, because if you have this great science but you don't deliver it well and you don't think about how you're delivering it, you can't have impact. It can sit on the shelf.


     

    Then, when I saw the gender piece, I realized that we had to shift the whole organization to the gender piece, too. And yes, it takes time to update an organization and you definitely have resistance sometimes. Sometimes it'll be from a woman, a female scientist who will be like an older generation, sometimes it's a male because of how he grew up. It can be from either place, but what I know is you have to work systematically and overcome the resistance. Bill and I have to both say it's serious. The CEO has to say it's serious and the entire leadership team has to say we're serious. We also have to say to men, "We expect you to take this leave." Not just the women, because we need the men to role model that.

    And so it takes time. I knew we were finally there as an organization when one of our senior scientists, who'd worked for us for a very long time, a male, came up to me one day and he finally said, "I finally get it, Melinda. I finally get it." He said, "You were talking about all this gender stuff, and I have to be honest, I didn't really get it. Now just all of a sudden the light bulb went off and I understand it. You're so right, now that I have two daughters who are in their 20s and I was behind them going to college and I was behind them in their careers but now that they're starting to have families," he said, "I get it. You're absolutely right."

    So I do think some of this change, because we're all so biased—men and women, I talk about my own bias coming into my marriage—it takes a while for us to update our thinking and to see what's right.

    ED: It's interesting how you can't necessarily be told these things. You have to experience it. Being told a fact doesn't reprogram bias. Even for myself, being a mother and being in a marriage are the two places where I've become maybe the most radicalized about gender equality. In your marriage, you describe Bill as very supportive and an ally, and my husband is like that. But I have realized I sometimes bring my frustration with inequality writ large into our relationship. I’ll read into what's going on with us the whole history of patriarchy, even though that is not what is really happening. I wonder if you relate to that. Do you ever have any instances where you've brought your frustrations about what you are seeing with women around the world into the marriage?

    MG: I'm sure I did. If Bill was sitting here I'm sure he could give you 10 examples. And I probably wasn't very nice about it. I can't think of a specific one at this moment but I definitely remember times when Bill would say, "Remember, this is us. This is us, and we're figuring this out, we're doing it." And I wasn't always nice about it because I would be frustrated. I would sometimes come in assuming he had a certain view and the truth is, again, you have to work this out in a partnership. In an intimate relationship you have to try and have some openings and be soft about it. Sometimes it takes putting your hands on your hips, and other times you have to be softer about it.


     

    The other thing we've learned as a couple after having been married now 25 years—I wish we'd known this in the first 10 years, but we know that the last 10—you also time things about when you bring up certain conversations, right? I mean, on a night you're tired and you've had a really long day at work is probably not the best time for your husband to bring up that he wants a change of some kind in your relationship. Same thing if he's tired. Probably not the best time to bring it up.

    And so I've had to learn over the years that if Bill's been traveling and is just home or I'm traveling and just home, I may have this burning issue that's really bothering me, but I need to wait and time it to when we're both rested and when he can hear me and when I can say it in a way when I'm less frustrated. You can't always do that. But it certainly helps.

    ED: Maybe that's also good advice for how to be a leader of an organization that you're trying to encourage change in. You need to time how you present a new challenge?

    MG: Absolutely, and I think I've done that elegantly and I've done that inelegantly with the current CEO of the foundation, with the previous CEO, and the CEO before that. I talk about this in my book, about quiet and reflective time. It's only when I can get that pause that I can stop and say, “OK, wait a minute. Now may not be the right time.” And so how do you pause and then think about how you want to go forward with whoever that person is in your workplace or your home or your community.

    ED: Mentioning that quiet time reminds me of something I wanted to ask you about: your own emotional health and the response to so much sorrow that you encountered. So much of what you do is put out this call for the biggest problems, and the best solutions. In the book you describe meeting so many people who have so much incredible challenge in their life. Do you find it hard to be optimistic or to bear the burden of the knowledge of so much suffering?

    MG: I don't think of it as a burden. First of all, I’m radically lucky to be in this role that I'm in at this time. I'm incredibly lucky because of the resources that came from Microsoft, so I try to always remember that. That said, when I go into these communities and there is so much sorrow and it's painful and it's unbelievable that the women are willing to share their lives and be so open with me. That's a gift. But yes, I have to take in that sorrow and not push it away. You'd like to just go, "Oh it wasn't as bad as I thought!" No, it is as bad as you thought. No running water. They know a child or two have died. They know a sister who's died. There's no electricity.

    So what I always try to do after those trips is to take time in quiet and take time alone. And it is so I can process those stories and deal with the pain that I hear of. And then work through that and then carry that back into our work, whether I walk in the doors of the foundation or meeting at the UN or with some world leader I'm trying to convince to put more money into a vaccine fund, I try and carry those stories with me. The pain and sorrow of them but also the potential and I think that keeps me optimistic. But if I didn't take that all in, if I just kind of pushed away, I don't think I could be as effective on this as an advocate for these women's stories. I mean their stories, they’ve animated my life and they've called me to action. It's sharing their vulnerability, which was why I was even willing to be vulnerable in the book.

    ED: You have a passage in the book about how to take on pain and not pass it on. You talked about Nelson Mandela on forgiveness, and it's such a hard lesson especially I think in this day and age when there's sort of a crisis of faith. I mean myself, I don't have any sort of religious upbringing to help me filter any of the sorrow I encounter in the world.

    MG: And pain. Sorrow and pain.

    ED: And there's just so much speed with which we're inundated with bad news, that I see people push it away because how can you exist in our world with so much pain. Even without your activism and ability to go and meet people, just being on Twitter, you see it.

    MG: The barrage.

    ED: The barrage of terrible news.

    MG: Totally.

    ED: And I don't know that people know how to handle it or turn it into effective action.

    MG: So what I would say to people is you need to put the phone down. I've had to learn. I dip into the news when I want to dip into the news and it's not that I'm not informed, but I really had to think about what am I teaching our children in our home about their phone usage, because kids have phones younger and younger. And how to take a break at night and then was I doing that myself? Both at night and during the day. Those applications are incredibly good. They're tuned to pull us in and we're tuned as human beings to to deal with fear. So all the headlines are about fear and all the apps are trying to keep you on their app reading the news. So we have to be mature. Put it aside.

    And then you're right, I think religious institutions we know from good data are breaking down in the United States, so what I say to people is where do you find your community? What are the relationships? I talk about three amazing friends I go walking with every Monday. Today's Monday so I'm gone on a Monday but guess what? Two were in town yesterday, we walked yesterday. So you find your community and your place to work through that pain and that joy and it's in community with others that I think we're better off as human beings.

    ED: You talked about that in the book. You ended talking about the importance of groups for women. And I've delved into that a bit in reporting into the research on how important female networks are in the workplace and in every walk of life: women helping other women. And I wonder if you have any concrete ideas for how to encourage women's groups? Are there things the big Silicon Valley companies could do to encourage groups of women helping each other?

    MG: I haven't heard of any specific ones but I can say what I did at Microsoft. I just found a group of women. For a while it was women and men, for sure, and we would jog together. Back then I jogged and so it would be a group of men and women and over time I learned that I sort of enjoyed being just with the women a little bit more or at least several times a week. But I think sometimes if we can combine two things—like we all care about being healthy and we need to take care of our bodies, so you can combine fitness with a friend. And then we know that our networks influence our being, so if you find other friends who are committed to fitness or eating healthy or discussing healthy food they influence you and you influence them. So I would say to women or to a company, try and find out sort of natural places people gravitate already. Maybe it's biking, maybe kayaking, maybe it's whatever some activity they like. And then try and help form the women's networks around those activities. Men and women’s networks, and then in addition women's specific networks. I think women sort of will gravitate to it naturally if the leadership just kind of helps till that soil.

    ED: Aside from encouraging women's networks, what are the changes you'd most like to see in Silicon Valley to empower women?

    MG: I would like to see far more women in leadership roles. Because it can't be one woman in a company. That does not create change. It just doesn't. You have to have multiple women at the top of leadership roles. Then they can say what they know is right for other women. And I really like that the press is pushing on tech to show numbers, to have transparency. And then I like that there are these grassroots swells to try and show where true diversity matters when you're starting a company. It's much easier to start a company than if you have an ingrained culture. Culture is hard to change.

    And the other thing I would say is more money. I mean the fact that less than 2 percent of VC funding goes to women-led businesses, that is crazy. Or less than 1 percent to a woman of color. Let's just put down money. Let's put our money where our mouth is. If you believe in this, you should be investing in women, because women invest in everybody else. And guess what, you're also going to get a good return.

    ED: How can we get more women VCs?

    MG: I see more women going out on their own or out with a like-minded male partner. I think that's probably going to be the way to do it, versus doing it inside the existing VCs. I mean, those numbers aren't good, they're less than 6 percent of partners. And we need to set up other networks of VCs: Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, name your favorite community. Plus rural communities, so that it's not all out of Silicon Valley. Because what you'll find even in Chicago, for instance, they're starting to be a great VC network and they're incubating women-led businesses. It's a growing part of their economy and they're more open-minded because again they're building it from the ground up.

    ED: So they don't have to change the whole culture of Silicon Valley.

    MG: Just build it from the ground up, then it'll just be baked in.


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