When one of the richest and most powerful women in the world writes about gender equality and cites her own marriage—to Bill Gates—you sit up and take notice. Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in her book, The Moment To Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, talks about women in the workplace, in agriculture, in technology, and at home. She builds a narrative around women’s empowerment through her work at the foundation and, surprisingly, through her own life— as a young girl, a working woman, a wife, a mother, a philanthropist, and, now, a gender equality advocate. It’s easy to be dismissive of her personal struggle for equality on the grounds that millions of girls cannot go to school, access contraception, visit a doctor, own property, spend their own money, or even walk or work outside the house. Melinda uses pertinent examples from her own life to portray how even well-heeled women are sometimes denied rights. She talks about her anger with Bill for writing the foundation’s annual letter on his own in the initial years, of being in an unhealthy relationship before meeting him, and getting him to drive their daughter to kindergarten every morning. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
You mention in the book that when you were asked for the first time whether you were a feminist, you didn’t know what to say. But, 22 years later, you are an ardent feminist. What changed?
It’s true that I haven’t always thought of myself as a feminist—in part, because I’m not sure I truly knew what a feminist was. I believe in two things: Equality and unity. I don’t think the rise of women should come at the (expense of the) fall of men. I believe that men and women should work together to dismantle the barriers and biases that still hold women back. As it turns out, that’s a pretty good description of what it means to be a feminist and, today, that’s a word I embrace.
When you decided to be a stay-at-home mom after you discovered you were pregnant with your first child in 1995, you were seeing everything through a defined set of gender roles. But now, do you believe we must come up with ways to gender-proof society?
One thing I admire about Sweden is that it has a generous paid family leave policy, and fathers are expected to take time off as well. That makes life better for fathers, mothers and children, and it upends gender roles from the beginning. But in countries where it is not an option yet, I think it’s important we’re taking on the hidden norms that shape society in other ways. Some years ago, I read a study that found boys were asked far more often than girls to take out the garbage—and I realized that, yes, I asked my son and not my daughters to do that chore. I also realized at one point that I was holding my daughters to a higher standard than my son when it came to keeping their rooms clean. I was a little taken aback to see all that I was doing to reinforce those gender norms without even realizing it.
All of us are shaped to some extent by the norms we grew up with in our own families. I know I was. But what makes me optimistic is that the world is starting to recognize the problem, and that’s the first step toward solving it.
You share many intimate and personal stories in the book about your marriage and how, through it, you made your voice stronger. Is asking for what you want from your partner the way for women to be on the road to empowerment?
It’s important to remember that for some women, asking for what they want is a non-starter or, worse, may even lead to violence. In those cases, it can’t be a woman’s responsibility to ask her oppressor to stop oppressing her or her abuser to stop abusing her. It doesn’t matter how strong your voice is if no one listens to you. But there are other women in other circumstances who are finding that their voice can change a conversation. What I’ve learned, though, is that in order to talk about how to make a partnership better, you first have to take a really hard look at that partnership, because a lot of the norms that shape our lives are so ingrained in our society that they become invisible.
In India, for instance, women spend an average of five hours more than men each day on things like childcare, cleaning and cooking. Why are these automatically considered women’s tasks? That’s something worth discussing. That’s what we did in my household when I noticed there was a certain category of tasks that kept falling to me as the mom.
Repeatedly, I’ve had to learn that I, too, have the potential, the power, and the right to use my own voice. I had to learn it at Microsoft, I had to learn it at the foundation, I had to learn it in my relationship with Bill. And I don’t doubt that there are ways in which I’m still learning it. My hope is that I can bring other women along this learning journey with me.
Three big things that block a woman’s progress—what are they and how can they be dealt with?
The first is access to education. Research overwhelmingly shows that education is one of the strongest forces there is for empowering women. And I don’t just mean primary education—we need parity in high school and college as well.
The second barrier is access to contraceptives. There are more than 200 million women in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant, but don’t have access to contraceptives. Contraceptives do more than help women plan their families; they enable them to plan their futures.
The third is economic empowerment. In India, women’s labour force participation has been going down. And, even when women make money, they may not have the power to decide how to use it. When women can earn and spend it how they think best, they create even more opportunities for themselves and their families.
All three issues are related to harmful cultural norms that assign women specific, usually subservient, roles. We can deal with each obstacle separately, but we also must get to the root and change the norms themselves.
You explain very joyfully how technology came into your all-girls school... When at the start of the spread of technology, access to it was more equal. What went so wrong that now we are talking about ways to get more women in technology and make them stay?
That’s a great question. It’s not just one thing that went wrong: Several factors worked together to create a snowball effect that got us where we are today. For example, companies hiring programmers in the 1960s used aptitude tests that favoured what one author has called “antisocial, mathematically inclined males". Marketing was another factor. Since computers seemed kind of like electronics, and electronics hobbyists were overwhelmingly male, marketers decided to market computers toward men and boys. The video-game design industry started focusing on violent games that didn’t interest girls. And, more and more, the media portrayed the ideal programmer as a white male geek, and the ideal woman as anything but a programmer. The result is a male-dominated industry where women and girls are not always made to feel welcome. It’s frustrating, because tech offers women and girls amazing possibilities, and, what’s more, it needs their insights!
Can you pinpoint three things that should be done in the next five years so that women can make their mark in technology?
Technology can be used to break down barriers to equality—or it can be used to reinforce those barriers. If we want it to live up to its potential to create a better, more equal future, we need to ensure that women, girls, and other marginalized groups are empowered as both creators and users of technology.
As far as getting more women into tech jobs is concerned, there are a lot of steps. For example, creating more programmes that get girls interested in coding at a young age, redesigning introductory computer science courses to better appeal to women, and getting more funding in the hands of women entrepreneurs. But there’s also concern about women having equal access to the benefits of technology. In developing countries, women are on average 10% less likely to own mobile phones and 26% less likely to use mobile internet than men. In South Asia, those numbers are 26% and 70%. I’m looking at ways to close that gap, in part by studying the cultural norms that help shape the perception that a phone is a tool for a man, not a woman.