Melinda Gates. Photo by Chip Somodevilla

Empowering the World’s Women with Melinda Gates

Noted philanthropist readies push for gender equality

As the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates has a reputation as a world-renowned philanthropist. Through the foundation, which she and her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill, established in 2000, Gates has provided educational scholarships, launched health programs and pushed initiatives for agricultural development around the world. Her efforts have been recognized with honorary doctorates from the University of Cambridge and Duke University, the French Legion of Honor medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

While her philanthropy work is expansive, over the past few years ­— and particularly after 2017 — Gates has been paying more attention to empowering women. In 2015, she created Pivotal Ventures, an executive office separate from the work of the Gates Foundation.

In 2016, when Gates spoke about her goals for Pivotal Ventures with Wired, she focused on the importance of supporting women in technology but stated that she was still in the process of gathering data and resources: “In anything we’ve done at the [Gates] foundation, we go through what I call a learning mode. That will sometimes be as much as two years, where we’re learning, collecting information, talking to lots of experts and looking at what research is out there.”

Based on Gates’ own writing and reflection, 2017 was an educational year on the kind of investment that might be necessary to empower women. For Yahoo Lifestyle, she created a list looking back on 2017, describing it as “the year our daughters will tell theirs about.”

In the same post, Gates wrote that 2017 reminded her of 1992, also known as “The Year of the Woman.” 1992 was the year Anita Hill testified about sexual harassment while working with now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and when women galvanized to ultimately triple the number of female U.S. senators.

Gates at UKAID’s London Summit on Family Planning

Gates at UKAID’s London Summit on Family Planning


2017 began with the Women’s March and ended with the seemingly never-ending floodgates of the #MeToo movement. For Gates, last year had the makings of another “Year of the Woman.” to reduce sentence length/commas. It was sentiment she also expressed in an essay for TIME.

“The year 2017 has been a painful reminder that when men hold most of the power, it’s all too easy for them to abuse it,” Gates wrote. “But the moment of reckoning prompted by the #MeToo conversation has also proven that by coming together and speaking in one voice, women can tip the balance. Thanks to these brave women, men are being held accountable for their actions as never before."

"It’s easy to dismiss the whispers of one woman. It’s much harder to ignore a movement.”

The challenges that women face have long been a concern for Gates, particularly in tech, which has a dismal reputation for being inclusive and supportive of women—and a record that has actually worsened since Gates graduated from Duke University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and an MBA. That same year she began working for Microsoft, where she would eventually meet her husband. However, the lack of diversity in STEM majors and technology companies speaks to a lack of opportunities for women who share Gates’ interest in tech.

“When I was in school in the 1980s, women got about 37 percent of computer science degrees and law degrees then,” Gates told Wired. “Law went up to 47 percent now. In medicine, we were at 28 percent in 1984. That’s gone up to 48 percent. Computer science went from 37 percent to 18 percent.”

From Gates’ perspective, having women involved in STEM is integral to building a better society. Their insights and ideas are necessary as companies and institutions plan and invent the ideas of the future. But after a year like 2017, in which allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination cropped up in tech companies, such as Uber, months before the #MeToo movement, it is clear that there is still a large amount of work necessary to make STEM an inclusive space.

The Gates Foundation’s 2017 Year in Review for highlighted women-led movements for gender equality from around the world. According to Gates, these grassroots movements are powerful because they are led by women, who often have a clear understanding of just what changes need to occur.

“Not only do women’s movements bring a sense of urgency to the work that they do, their deep knowledge of the customs that shape their communities offers important insight into solutions,” Gates wrote in TIME. “When development policies are set from the top down, even though they may be well-intentioned, their impact doesn’t always reach everyone equally. Women’s organizations help drive progress that is more inclusive and sustainable.”

But these same potentially powerful movements are all too often lacking in adequate funding and resources. As a result, the Gates Foundation has pledged to invest $20 million over the next three years to support such movements. For Gates, it’s a step toward work she knows is necessary. “I’m hopeful that in 2018, we’ll do more than imagine that future,” Gates wrote. “We’ll start making it a reality.”

Gates has been in “learning mode” for Pivotal Ventures since 2016. After a year as enlightening as 2017, we can only imagine what other ideas she has about what needs to be done to change ideas into reality.

Melinda Gates was a Convergence Keynote Speaker at SXSW 2018. Watch the Keynote in its entirety below.

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