Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, spoke to National Opinion Editor VANDITA MISHRA in New Delhi Tuesday. Excerpts:
You have been increasingly talking about ways to empower women. In fact, you have tried to shift the discourse from women’s empowerment to something you call “full power”, the real lived power of women. What is this distinction you make? And how has the pandemic brought a setback to it?
Women have power, but we don’t always look at the barriers that hold them back. So, for instance, I think of the difference of empowerment versus full power as — if we help a woman get a really good job…maybe it is in the formal sector, and here in India, but we don’t make sure that she has a place to put her child, she can’t live her full power because she can only do that job part way.
Or, let’s say, if she actually gets a bank account but she can’t use it, she can’t access banking services, she doesn’t have her full power. I think we need to stop talking about empowerment and make sure that we help women come into their full power in society. I think Covid set women back — we know for sure, because around the world, it pushed so many women out of the formal sector and out of their jobs. And what we’re seeing now is this childcare crisis — women don’t have a place to put their children to then be able to go back to work. That’s one example of where the pandemic has set women back.
(On Covid) we should have had a worldwide response — a worldwide surveillance response, a worldwide response on diagnostics and a worldwide response on vaccines. And even in the United States, our own nationalistic instinct kept us from doing that.
It’s not just the pandemic, of course. In India, in many graduate and postgraduate degree courses women outnumber men. But at the same time, you have high dropout rates of girl students and a workforce where women are completely inadequately represented. So where do you think lie the stubborn glitches?
Well, you’re pointing out two of them. Both at the bottom and at the top of the pyramid. So I think in terms of keeping girls in school, we need to look at what holds them back from staying in school. Often, it’s menstrual management and hygiene. If they live in a place where they don’t have access to the sanitary napkins that they need, they can’t stay in school or they drop out or they miss seven days.
Once you’ve missed seven days of school, you cannot keep catching up. Especially seven days a month. So I think we have to look at what holds girls back and we have to do specific programming for that. In the formal sector, we need to make transparent what is not transparent right now. What is it? Why are we only getting women to the very teeny top echelons of society? Very few of them. I think you need to break down the sectors and say, what are men’s versus women’s roles in each job level and what are their salaries? And talk to women and understand what keeps them from progressing in their job.
You are a philanthropist who is also a woman. Do you think a female philanthropist is different from a male? (With) a different set of priorities, a different approach? Do you think women listen more? Are they more interested in stories and relationships?
I know a female philanthropist is different from a male philanthropist. I also know a female politician is different from a male politician. I know a female businesswoman is different from a male businessman. I think women bring a different lens to society than a man does because we have different lived experiences.
We are often the ones who are asked or expected to take care of the children, expected to take care of our aging parents. Some of that is loving work we want to do, but some of it is also very laborious and tedious and it keeps us from getting our PhD or taking the job we want. So I think we need to look at all sectors and say, how do we make sure that women have seats at the table of equal numbers as men? Then society will change. But yes, I think I have a view of society that’s different from a male philanthropist because of what I see and what I learned and hear from women.
We work in deep partnership with the government, we let the government lead and we bring our skills to bear, but we’re not setting the agenda. It’s the government’s agenda in health.
This is a time when populist movements with nationalist assertions have come to power across the globe. For philanthropy, there are challenges. You have to deal with suspicion of NGOs or “foreign forces”; you also have to navigate a way to work with them. A third set of challenges is that many of these nationalisms create problems in, let’s say, the public health sector, as we saw in the pandemic: “America first” or “India first”. How would you respond to these three sets of challenges?
I would say that, as a philanthropist, we have to know, first and foremost, who we are and what we’re about. And I know what I’m about, which is, I believe that all lives have equal value. I’m interested in working with governments that have the same stance — that they want the world to get better for their citizens.
Governments are put there by their citizens. And so the government is there to serve citizens and to make the world better. We work, for instance, in India, in deep partnership with the government. It has to be the government’s priority for the people. And luckily, in this case, we have shared priorities, which is how do you make sure that people have a better life by first starting with good health. How do you make sure that women are brought up in society to their rightful place and have the services that they need but also are empowered, for instance, economically?
I was incredibly impressed that even during the pandemic, because of all the digital rails that have been put in place in India — 470 million bank accounts have been opened and 50% are for women. That is because it was purposely done that way. And I think that makes a huge difference.
What about the suspicion that many of these governments regard you and other foundations with?
I think showing up and doing the work is the way to bust through the myths. I mean, they are myths and suspicions, there isn’t much we can do about that. But we can say, here’s who we are, here’s what we’re about. What the Gates Foundation is about is making sure that everyone can live a healthy, productive life and they can thrive. So we do deep technical work with the Indian government on health. We do deep technical work on digital bank accounts. If you have a suspicion about why we’re helping someone with health, all we can do is demonstrate that this is what we’re about. I think after a while people start to realise they’re both living their values, and they’re speaking what they mean.
And the damage that a less-than-universal approach can do to the health sector?
It did not benefit any of us during Covid, right? We should have had a worldwide response — a worldwide surveillance response, a worldwide response on diagnostics and a worldwide response on vaccines. And even in the United States, our own nationalistic instinct kept us from doing that.
Foundations such as yours have tremendous influence and agenda-setting power. There is an obvious conflict with the need for democratic accountability. How do you navigate this challenge?
What we try and do is follow the path that was set by the UN — the Sustainable Development Goals that were set out. And there are targets for maternal mortality and childhood mortality, bringing that down. So, we use that as a blueprint in the countries that are interested in working on those issues, like India. Maternal mortality, they brought it down to 97 per 1,00,000 live births. We work in deep partnership with the government, we let the government lead and we bring our skills to bear, but we’re not setting the agenda. It’s the government’s agenda in health.
Do you worry sometimes that while philanthropy has done such a lot of good — it has helped deliver vaccines during the pandemic, for instance — the criticism is that it avoids or sidesteps structural change.
Well, I think you have to be careful in philanthropy. I think you have to come at it with a lot of humility. I can’t speak to what other philanthropists do, I can only speak to what we do and what we know. We believe that all lives have equal value, and yet the world doesn’t necessarily treat them that way. So we take the resources that have come to us in society, and we are trying to spread them on behalf of others.
You said in an interview that when you were younger, you knew who you were, and if you could re-be that girl in high school, you would grow into the full woman that you could be. What did you mean by that?
I went to an all-girl high school. My parents believed that my sister and I should go to a girls’ high school. And I was surrounded by women who said you can be great in math, you can be great in science, you can be great in the humanities. They taught me computer science. I knew then who I wanted to be in the world. But sometimes when you go out in the world, and then you do work in the corporate sector, you assimilate into that world. And what I had to learn is to go back to who I was in high school and say, I can move forward and push forward, even in fields that I don’t know very well, I can continue to learn. I think I’ve come back to be that person and to be a continuous learner.
You have said that the investment in women actually gives the greatest returns.
Well, because we know that when you put $1 in a woman’s hands or a few rupees, she spends it differently than her husband does. There’s very good research on this. He will often spend it on himself or spend it on luxury goods or cigarettes. She will spend it on behalf of her family first. And so what I know is that if you invest in women, it’s been shown time and time again, they invest in everyone else. And that’s what lifts up the family. That’s what lifts up a community. That’s what lifts up an economy. And enlightened governments are starting to realise that if you want a good engine of economic growth, you want to do well by your women. I think we see India doing that.