"We have to vote for the right people. And then we have to hold our leaders accountable," the philanthropist said.
On March 7, 2020, Melinda Gates published an op-ed in The New York Times to mark International Women's Day.
Today, she wrote, take a moment to start a conversation about gender equality, preferably with someone you've never discussed it with before. "It will take 208 years to close major gender gaps in the United States — but this should only take a few minutes."
Broadly, we may think of gender inequality as the sweeping injustices levied against women and girls on a global scale — among them sex trafficking, domestic violence, child marriage, economic, technological and educational gaps, maternal mortality and inadequate reproductive care.
But for Gates, it seems personal too.
When she joined Microsoft in the late 1980s, the tech firm wasn't exactly a paradise for female employees. Her decision to quit work to raise her daughter when she became a mother, while not one she regrets, now gives her pause. At the time, "I just assumed that's what women do," she wrote in her 2019 book, The Moment of Lift. "I had a lot of growing up to do." And for a long time, even her work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she shares the title of co-chair with her husband, wasn't exactly equal, with Bill Gates the de facto spokesperson in the public eye and Melinda Gates — by choice — behind the scenes.
So it's no wonder that gender equality factors so prominently in her work and her words. And it's certainly no different in a world transformed by a pandemic.
She is as insistent that gender equality should be at the centre of building back as she is that many solutions can start with something as simple as a conversation.
Gates spoke about how various world leaders have managed the crisis, philanthropy's role in the global recovery, and how we can all make strides by talking and listening to one another.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: From the very start of this crisis, there has been this implicit suggestion that now is not the time to worry about women's issues. But you have framed your ideas for building back post-Covid specifically through gender. Why?
A: The way to build back is to put women straight at the centre. Because guess what? They're already at the centre. They're already the ones dealing with kids at home, taking care of the elderly, trying to make sure that there's food on the table. If we want to build back a better society, and also have a quicker recovery, then we have to look at the specific gender pieces that we need to work on in every country around the world.
Q: An issue that constantly gets in the way of women being able to work is unpaid labour. Is now the time to start solving for that? How might we bring men into the solution?
A: Unpaid labour has been this invisible issue. Women do 2 1/2 times more work at home than men do, no matter what country in the world you look at. But you never want to waste a good crisis, and in this crisis, what was invisible is now completely visible.
I think we have to use this opportunity to reframe our entire narrative. Our narrative has always been "well, we'll get to that." Now, the narrative is "we are doing this now in society." We are trying to care for the young and the elderly and keep food on the table. Given that we are doing this — men and women — what policies do we want to put in place? When we build a stimulus package, how do we make sure we look specifically at the female piece of it? Because money in the hands of a woman is invested differently on her family than when it's in the hands of a man.
Q: So where do we begin?
A: The conversation starts in the home. Just start saying: Who's doing what here? How do we redistribute the workload at home? And then we have to have the conversation in the community: How do we redistribute? What goes on in our community? And then you have it in the workplace: How do we redistribute the load? Because this is visible right now.
We have to say, What is it we want next? Who are our elected officials who will get us there? Who are the elected officials who are putting in the right stimulus packages?
We have to vote for the right people. We have to listen to the advocates on the ground who really know the situation. And then we have to hold our leaders accountable.
Q: Some have argued that in our rush to reopen bars, we forgot about our schools. How do we reprioritise things?
A: We elect new officials. We demand more from all our leaders at the local level, the state level and the federal level. I think you're going to see that come the November elections.
Look at the countries that have done well with these problems. We have so many exemplars. Look at South Korea, look at Germany, look at many countries in Europe — they did the appropriate lockdown. That's the only tool we have, you know, recede, do it for a time, make sure you do testing appropriately at the national level, you do contact tracing, isolation, quarantine. We know that works. Then you tell people to wear masks. And as your epidemic numbers come down, you slowly and carefully reopen schools, and you watch and you wait and you look at the numbers and you reopen a little bit more. You slowly reopen businesses. Those are sensible policies.
The US has been completely lacking at leadership on this issue. And because of that, we have put our children and our elderly at the greatest risk in the world. And that is a crime.
Q: One consequence of the pandemic is limited access to maternal and reproductive care — resources you have said should be classified as essential. How did we ever get to a place where this type of care was deemed inessential?
A: It's because women didn't have the seat at the table. For many years, we didn't test drugs or new vaccines on men and women, we tested them all on men. We still don't collect data about women and women's lives. But we do know these are essential.
Here is something we do have data about: Women are healthier, her children are healthier and better educated, and the family is wealthier when a woman can space the births of her children. And so it's one of those things that you have to look at all the time. And particularly during a time of crisis, teen pregnancy rates go up, maternal mortality goes up. So we have to make sure we keep this front and centre on the agenda.
Q: When it comes to vaccine development, how do you get global leaders to work together and not be individualistic?
A: We're seeing unprecedented cooperation. People are working so rapidly and sharing results, sharing Phase 1 findings as soon as they get them, trying to align manufacturing, even before we know which vaccine is going to go through. The biggest concern though, is that the vaccine not go to the highest bidder when it comes out. It is fundamental that the vaccine goes first to the 60 million health care workers around the globe who are keeping the rest of us safe. They deserve this vaccine first, and I don't care where you live. And after that, then the most vulnerable populations deserve to get the vaccine.
Philanthropy is absolutely playing a role in these conversations.
Q: Speaking of philanthropy, in moments of crisis, we usually turn to foundations like yours for moonshots. What can the Gates Foundation do and what are its limits?
A: All a foundation or philanthropy can do is be that catalytic wedge, to show ways and points of light. The moonshots are coming from the pharmaceutical companies; we can invest alongside of them, and we can incent them, just like government can incent them, to build out more manufacturing plants earlier, not just for high-income countries but middle- and low-income. We can be a catalyst or a prod to make sure the right things happen.
Q: The world has been dealt the most terrible hand, but I want to ask you what "moments of lift" — to borrow your own phrasing — you can see emerging from this.
A: The moment of lift is that time when, if you're looking at a rocket leaving the earth and it's going to catapult into space, the engines are lit, they're rumbling, they're ready to go. And then you lift off against gravity and you head off to the moon. When we give women this small lift in society, they will walk to new places.
During this time, what I have been so inspired by are the young men and women coming out and saying "no more" to the systematic race issues that we have in the United States. I see it in women's collectives. I see it in male leaders coming forward and saying, "We're going to change things in our country for domestic violence that we know exists and is finally being exposed."
That to me is lift because that's when we change the cracks in society.
Written by: Francesca Donner
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES