Many experts have argued that nothing is more important for global development than empowering women to play an equal role in all societies. Lately, that view has growing sway at the world’s biggest foundation.
Signs have been emerging for a while now that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is giving more attention to women’s empowerment, with Melinda leading this shift—while also becoming more independent in her philanthropy. This could be a very big deal over the long term.
Here are some of the tea leaves we’ve been reading.
First, Melinda Gates has recently raised her profile as a leader on women’s issues. In the past 18 months, she’s given interviews to several national media outlets, including Fortune and Elle, about her increasing focus on women’s empowerment, and authored an opinion piece for CNN about the need for more data on women. She even recently said she would like to see a woman become president. No clear endorsement here, but that’s a pretty big hint about how this powerful female leader sees the world. She is making more videos in which we hear her voice and see her face. She’s making it crystal clear that one of the richest women in the world is also a huge believer in women’s empowerment.
Second, Gates created her own unit at the foundation last year called Pivotal Ventures, which operates through her executive office. (Bill also has his own office, by the way, called bgc3.) According to Geekwire, she established the effort to “further her work on issues of gender inequity and women’s empowerment.” Pivotal Ventures has a number of staff members, including Haven D. Ley, who is senior director for program strategy. Ley has worked with Gates for a few years, and before that, she worked on the foundation’s agricultural development grantmaking. There, she led work focused on women in agriculture, which she once pointed out as a crucial issue: “The majority of farmers in the developing world are women working on plots of less than two hectares; it is women who produce food for most of the world’s poor people.” The foundation’s emphasis on gender-responsive agricultural development is one example of its growing work on women’s empowerment. Other examples include the creation in 2014 of a new Grand Challenge: “Putting Women and Girls at the Center of Development,” which the foundation described as an effort “to effectively reach and empower the most vulnerable women and girls to improve health and development—including economic—outcomes as well as gender equality.”
Third, Melinda Gates recently penned her own section of the Gates Annual Letter, separate from Bill, for the first time. Bill and Melinda have issued other letters together, but they mainly seemed to have Bill’s tone and subject focus. This year, Melinda carved out her own section in the 2016 letter, and devoted it to the concept of “time poverty” and how much unpaid work is done by the world’s women. This is probably something Melinda knows about firsthand, having just mothered three children nearly to adulthood, with the youngest, Rory, being 16. Now she has time (finally!) to speak to the world about how to work on the inequality caused by time poverty and its impact on women.
Fourth, the Gates Foundation has awarded big grants for data mining on women. Gates partnered with The Clinton Foundation in 2014 to fund No Ceilings and the Full Participation Project, the largest data research and analysis projects to date on the global status of women. On another front, Gates made a $2.1 million grant to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute last year to explore questions related to women and giving.
All this paints a picture of a different level of action and leadership from Melinda Gates on women’s issues. How much this shift might ultimately reshape the priorities of the world’s largest private foundation remains to be seen, but clearly, some changes have already been put in motion over the past year or two. We expect more going forward.
This is definitely a story worth watching closely.