Prioritizing Gender Equality: A Response to the Gates Annual Letter

Editor’s Note: I originally wrote this post on February 17, 2020, and it is an interesting study in how questions from the past about the Gates Foundation are now being answered as the couple finalizes their divorce and their two paths diverge.

When one of the richest women in the world decides that gender equality should be more of a priority, what impact does that have? Should we cheer, or fear, this development?

more gender equality
Melinda Gates devotes much of her part of the Gates Annual letter to discussing her agenda for bringing gender equality to the fore as a social issue. (Image Credit: Gates Foundation website)

For two decades, Bill and Melinda have spent $53.8 billion on philanthropy, all for the purpose of making the world a better place. Now, for the first time in that twenty years, Melinda Gates has planted a stake in the ground and declared gender to be a topic of high priority for the foundation’s work, and for her own work happening separately through Pivotal Ventures. From the letter:

In addition to the foundation’s 20th anniversary, this year marks another milestone I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: the 25th anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women. (If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you may know it as the event where Hillary Clinton famously declared that “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”)

Melinda Gates has been paying attention to gender for decades, but as she says, “it took years before I recognized how gender equality would fit into my own work.” She discusses how spending time with women in some of the poorest places in the world “changed everything” for her.

I met a woman who asked me to take her newborn home with me because she couldn’t imagine how she could afford to take care of him. I met sex workers in Thailand who helped me understand that if I had been born in their place, I, too, would do whatever it took to feed my family. I met a community health volunteer in Ethiopia who told me she once spent the night in a hole in the ground rather than returning to her abusive husband—when she was 10 years old.“The data is unequivocal: No matter where in the world you are born, your life will be harder if you are born a girl.”

Melinda has known for a long time how the lives of women and girls face many more barriers, and that this pattern is destined to continue if we don’t change things. But here’s one of the most interesting paragraphs in Melinda’s message:

I’ll admit that when I first started speaking publicly about gender equality, it felt like its own risk. I was deeply aware that our foundation was a latecomer to the issue. I worried about holding my own against the experts and wondered if I was the right messenger for the cause. But I now know that progress depends on all of us speaking up.

It seems worth wondering why Melinda is, as she admits, “a latecomer to the issue.” What kept her from expressing her desire to address gender equality as an issue earlier in their philanthropy? Certainly her wealth gave her the authority, autonomy, and agency she needed to do whatever she believed needed to be done. Or did it? Why did it take 20 years to fully articulate this strategy for her and, subsequently, for her family’s foundation?

I’m deeply curious about why this strategy didn’t take shape sooner. Did Bill not see the gender lens strategy as necessary? Were the experts leading their foundation and guiding their work not open to the ideas about addressing gender equality when Melinda tried to present them sooner? Is that one of the reasons she set off on her own to create a different vehicle, Pivotal Ventures, to disburse $1 billion in funding for gender equality work?

There’s no way to know unless Melinda and Bill want to reveal more about their internal process as a couple, and about the foundation’s process in finding its mission and strategy. All of this is their private information which they are under no obligation to share.

But I think it’s important to ask these questions. One thing I notice in philanthropy is that there are certain people — usually the wealthiest billionaires — who philanthropy professionals don’t really respond to, other than to praise and thank them. Is that really enough, though? Is praise and thanks sufficient for addressing a monumental shift in focus for one of the country’s largest foundations? Wouldn’t it make sense for the Gates Foundation to seek public comment on this work, so they can assess whether their strategy is one that makes sense to the people impacted?

One of the complaints frequently lodged against large foundations, and the Gates Foundation in particular, is that they tend to take a top-down approach, to get granted the privilege of being considered the experts simply by virtue of the size of their fortune and the dominance they maintain in the philanthropy landscape.

The reason the pace of progress for women and girls has been so glacial is no mystery. It’s the direct result of the fact that—despite the valiant efforts of activists, advocates, and feminist movements—the world has refused to make gender equality a priority. Global leaders simply have not yet made the political and financial commitments necessary to drive real change.

With organizations like the Women’s Funding Network, Ms. Foundation for Women and many others that have already developed inclusive and systems-based strategies for addressing gender equality, I also wonder why the Gateses would not invest most of their funding in these existing organizations rather than expanding their own gender focus. They have given funding to many of the organizations in the women’s philanthropy space, for which many of us are grateful, but why not grow the players who already have boots on the ground, rather than start your own army?

If we miss another opportunity, if we let the spotlight sputter out again, we risk contributing to a dangerous narrative that inequality between men and women is inevitable. We need to be loud and clear that the reason these problems look unsolvable is that we’ve never put the necessary effort into solving them.

The necessary effort has definitely not been put into it. The necessary effort is also likely to involve extensive advocacy and systems change that will finally address growing inequality and end the reign of the ultra-high net worth. Is this something that Bill and Melinda Gates are truly buying into, the idea that they should not be able to dominate the world the way that they do? Just how much of the funding being dispensed by the Gates Foundation and Pivotal Ventures will be put toward advocacy for systems changes like a fairer tax system and enforcing equal opportunity and equal pay legislation?

Lastly, because gender inequality is an issue that touches almost every aspect of society, any response must be broad-based, too. We need to be deliberate about galvanizing a wide range of partners to play a role in changing society’s norms and expectations—not just the activists and advocates who are already leading these conversations, but consumers, shareholders, faith leaders, entertainers, fathers, and husbands.

Several categories of people seem conspicuously absent from this list, particularly voters, political leaders and policy makers in local, state and national leadership. Also conspicuously absent: the LGBTQ+ community. And what about youth leaders?

In addition to stepping up our commitments to family planning, I directed our foundation to develop strategies that prioritize gender equality. Over the past several years, we’ve invested to close data gaps, strengthen advocacy, and support women’s economic empowerment.

There’s that word: advocacy. I’m glad it finally made it into Melinda’s letter, but part of me suspects that the kind of advocacy that is really necessary — advocacy that would end billionaire wealth accumulation and bring a better standard of living to much of the world — should be the first and largest goal of the Gates Foundation, and every other large foundation that truly believes in gender equality.

Melinda finishes her gender section of the 2020 Annual Letter thusly:

My message is simple: Equality can’t wait.

I couldn’t agree more. And yet, it seems like gender equality has been on the back burner for 20 years at the Gates Foundation, and is only surfacing now for reasons that are not completely clear. I still want to know more about the backstory on this monumental change — how it came to pass, and how it will effect the social movement — feminism — that many believe has great potential for improving our planet. We can’t wait, but we also can’t let billionaire philanthropy co-opt this movement and make it about their own agenda.

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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