What Melinda Gates Says, and Doesn’t Say, About Women in COVID

“Architects of a better world” is how Melinda Gates frames the role of women in the age of COVID. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, the co-founder of the world’s largest philanthropic organization makes the case that women’s leadership is the beacon of light the world needs most right now.

Gates starts off the essay by recognizing the silent pandemic of violence against women happening during COVID. She goes on to detail in full the many ways that women are losing access to health care and jobs, all while being piled with more housework and childcare duties.

(Image Credit: Oladimeji Odunsi at Unsplash)

Maternity Care Needs to Develop Workarounds for COVID

Gates is particularly worried about expectant moms in COVID, and with good reason. She relates some of the staggering losses suffered in the Ebola outbreak of 2014 in Sierra Leone. One suggestion that Gates makes for COVID: separate facilities for COVID and non-COVID pregnant women in some countries so that women can still get maternal care, even if they are COVID positive.

Ignoring Women Is the Problem, Says Melinda. Listening to Women is the Solution

Here it is, straight up:

That is what epidemics do: they not only overwhelm immune systems but also overwhelm health systems. And because the parts of those systems devoted to caring for women are often the most fragile and underfunded, they collapse first and fastest. Early data suggest that in low- and middle-income nations, the cutback in maternal care during COVID-19 could claim the lives of up to 113,000 women.

What needs to happen in order to save some of these 113,000 women?

Sexual and Reproductive Health Care is a MUST.

Without access to birth control, women are set back not just decades, but centuries. Enough said.

What Health Care Workers Need: Priority for Vaccines and PPE That Fits Women

The safety of healthcare workers must be guarded, says Melinda, and yes, it is a feminist issue, since PPE is currently not made to fit women. Vaccines also need to ensure that they are effective for women, since women are going to be the primary people getting the first wave of vaccines as 70% of health care workers:

Health workers on the frontlines need tools to keep themselves safe. Eventually that will require giving them first priority to a COVID-19 vaccine. For now, it requires supplying them with personal protective equipment that fits. The PPE that’s delivered to hospitals and clinics is often designed for men, even though 70 percent of health workers worldwide are female. Manufacturers should ensure they’re making enough PPE that will fit the people who need to use it, and health systems should make sure they’re buying enough.

Use Pandemic to Force Integrated Women’s Health Care

Melinda also advocates for “a forcing mechanism to integrate women’s health care,” saying that women in low-income countries are often turned away for services because they show up on the wrong day in a block calendar that only has certain days for certain types of care. “This block scheduling never made much sense, and it makes even less during a pandemic, when no one should be spending any more time in a crowded waiting area than necessary,” says Melinda. 

Women Picking Up Slack at Home, and Underpaid at Work, During COVID

This isn’t news to most of us by now, since the mainstream media is now running more stories on the disparate impact of COVID on women in every level of society. But Melinda lays out the repercussions of this in a way that is striking:

If the pandemic stalls progress toward gender equality, the cost will be in the trillions: even a four-year wait in taking new action to improve parity—for example, by introducing interventions to advance women’s digital and financial inclusion—would erase $5 trillion in opportunity from global GDP in 2030. As policymakers work to protect and rebuild economies, their response must account for the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women—and the unique roles women will have to play in mitigating the pandemic’s harm.

Melinda has some suggestions for how to do this rebuilding, and much of it revolves around getting money into the hands of women:

Another way to ensure that families can meet basic needs is by designing emergency cash transfers with women’s realities in mind. While efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 have interrupted the flow of goods and services around the world, the World Bank estimates that over one billion people have received a COVID-related cash transfer from their government since the crisis began to help them meet basic needs. Yet the most economically marginalized women are often invisible to their governments—they are less likely to appear in the tax rolls, have formal identification, or own a mobile phone—and thus at risk of missing out on these benefits. Research shows that social protection programs that ignore gender can exacerbate existing inequalities. Well-designed cash transfers, however, can yield significant benefits. A 2019 study in India found that when cash benefits were deposited into a woman’s account (rather than her husband’s) and the woman was shown how to use that account, female labor-force participation rose.

Women Without Money Are Being Pushed Further to the Margins

Gates makes the case that policymakers should direct stimulus funds to women business owners. She raises the important issue with this example:

Sometimes, gender discrimination hides in the fine print. For example, because women’s businesses tend to be smaller and earn less revenue than men’s, they may be ineligible for government loans or procurement schemes that require companies to meet certain capitalization requirements. Governments can follow Canada’s lead and ensure that some benefits are set aside specifically for women’s enterprises. Other nations are wisely directing funds toward sectors where women are heavily represented: Argentina is procuring masks from home-based workers, and Burkina Faso has waived utility fees for fruit and vegetable sellers.

Women Also Need Phones, Says Melinda

It sounds a little overly simplistic — just give every woman a phone and the world will work better. But it might actually be true. Having a phone is now linked to so many vital services — health and news updates, buying and selling of goods, and, perhaps most significant, personal and business banking. She suggests countries follow the lead of Kenya and Bangladesh, where the government offers special phone deals that are affordable for women.

Men Need to Bear More Housework and Caregiving Load

Here, Melinda Gates starts to get a little more systems-focused, calling out the worldwide problem of women being expected to do everything for everybody at home. “Governments can make sure this work is valued by enacting policies such as paid leave for working parents and prioritizing infrastructure investments, such as electricity and piped water, that make unpaid work less time-consuming. Employers can offer employees flexible schedules, the opportunity to work remotely where possible, and options such as onsite childcare for those whose jobs must be done in person. All of these policies should be extended to both men and women, so that they upend gender roles instead of reinforcing them.”

Women are Asking the Important Questions, so Listen to Them

Melinda says women are more likely to be asking the relevant questions that are based on real experience in COVID, such as “What do we do to keep domestic violence shelters open?” and “What are we not treating if we are diverting our health care resources to COVID?”

Melinda also calls attention to the critical leadership differential that has set women leaders apart in COVID, reminding us that “The curves remain flattest where people have heeded the guidance of public health officials on everything from the wearing of masks to the closing of restaurants.” Many of the places where this is the case are led by women, yet men still rule most of the countries and lawmaking bodies in the world. Gates calls on all leaders to recognize the stake they have in ensuring that women’s leadership is prioritized.

Lastly, Melinda points to India as a shining example of how women can be of use during the pandemic: “In India, thousands of members of grassroots women’s organizations had, by early May, manufactured more than 100 million masks, 200,000 PPE kits, and 300,000 liters of hand sanitizer. This is how we can emerge from the pandemic in all of its dimensions: by recognizing that women are not just victims of a broken world; they can be architects of a better one.

The final vision Gates evokes, of women working to produce supplies to fight COVID, harkens back to ideas from the 1920’s in the U.S., when women were called to work in the bomb factories and do other things to materially support the war effort. An interesting choice: the future of the world in Melinda Gates’s eyes doesn’t depend on women activists or changemakers as much as she implies it depends on women as compliant workers.

What Doesn’t Melinda Gates Say

This is all fairly sound advice and thought leadership from an important voice in feminist philanthropy. I would like to add a few other dimensions to the levels of change that need to happen, if we are going to make it real.

We Need an Economic Model that Works for Everyone

If there is one thing COVID has taught us, it’s that equality doesn’t happen when capitalism stacks the deck against everyone who isn’t white and affluent. Time and again, we see how the our economic model allows for lack of benefits like health care, paid sick time, and parental leave, making life more difficult for women. But Melinda only hints at the economic model changes that need to happen for women to really be empowered.

The laws need to change, specifically around requirements for these benefits to be built into jobs. And everyone has to accept that as the standard. The Gates Foundation itself reduced its parental leave benefit in February of 2019. So how about when they get their own businesses in order and provide world class family-supporting benefits for jobs, then they go out and tell others to do the same. Until then, it seems to me it’s a fair bit of empty rhetoric.

The laws also need to change so the rich stop getting richer. We need a tax structure that supports the middle ground that we all need to stand on in this country. We also need laws guarding against loopholes for further accumulation of wealth — ending off-shore tax shelters and DAF hoarding of resources.

Investors Can’t Keep Making Money Off of COVID While Everyone Else Suffers

The Gates Foundation’s financial investments during COVID tell a different story from the words of Melinda Gates’s essay. Some might say parts of their ongoing financial investments are nothing more than acts of naked greed: investments in companies including Amazon, businesses that are profiting off COVID and doing little, if anything, to address the systemic economic problems of our country.

This is where the gender lens seems to get lost for the Gates Foundation, and many other large foundations — when we get to the idea of gender lens investing. The Gateses claim that they are turning their “total attention” to addressing COVID. Yet, their foundation is still primarily concerned with making money the old fashioned way — in capital markets investing in cut-throat businesses that threaten the security of the average worker and middle class family. As long as this is their modus operandi, little else will change.

To be truly a feminist giving institution, the Gates Foundation needs to challenge all systems that are producing exploitation and inequality, and stop empowering those systems.

The Giving Pledge Needs to Be More Than Words

For the mega-billionaire couple that invented The Giving Pledge, the net worth of the Gateses has doubled over the past 10 years. When we begin to see the Gateses net worth go down, year by year, then we will know that they are living up to their pledge. With great wealth comes even greater responsibility, and as long as the income of the Gateses continues to rise, it seems only fair to view their resource hoarding as a gross betrayal of their responsibility to the community and country that gave them the immense power they wield today.

Read the rest at Foreign Affairs.

Related:

COVID-19 Special Edition: Women’s Leadership Matters

Liveblog: Funding to End Violence Against Women of Color

May 14 Webinar: Feminist Giving for COVID: Strategies and Models

Kiersten Marek

Author: Kiersten Marek

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

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