There is No Silver Bullet Solution: A Q&A with Melinda Gates

Katja Iversen, President/CEO of Women Deliver, spoke with Melinda Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, on the importance of access to family planning for women’s economic empowerment.

Katja Iversen: At Women Deliver, we firmly believe that girls’ and women’s ability to control their own fertility, and to decide if and when to have children and how many children to have, is a bedrock of women’s empowerment and gender equality. Throughout your career, you have been a steadfast advocate for girls’ and women’s health including expanding access to modern contraception. In your opinion, what is the one thing we need most now to meet the demand for modern contraception and ensure health for all?

Melinda Gates: Right now, 1.2 billion adolescents around the world are reaching their reproductive years. This is an amazing opportunity. If they have access to high-quality family planning services, then the largest-ever generation of women will be empowered to build a better future. So how do we help them get access?

I can’t boil it down to just one thing, but I will identify one theme: trying to treat each woman like an individual—but doing that at scale.

For example, when it comes to the billion-plus young women coming of age now, we need to learn to talk to them on their terms, instead of trying to reach them with messages designed to help us talk to their mothers.

In general, we need to focus as much on the quality of reproductive health care as on the quantity. Part of that is making sure they have options to choose from. Women have different wants and needs. We shouldn’t give them just condoms and call it access. We shouldn’t offer pills and think we’ve met demand. We know, for example, that a lot of the recent increase in contraceptive use in sub-Saharan Africa is due to the fact that implants are now available in many places. In other words, women don’t tend to decide first that they’re going to use contraceptives and then decide which kind they’ll use. The method is an integral part of the decision to use contraceptives in the first place. Women expect contraceptives that fit into their lives.

In the long-run, I hope we’ll make enough progress on R&D that there are entirely new kinds of contraceptives available to women (and men), including contraceptives with fewer side effects. In the meantime, we owe the women who are trying to plan their families the respect of relevant information, excellent care, and real options.

Katja Iversen: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced its first gender equality strategy – with an investment of $170 million – to transform the way women participate in economies.  With a history of focusing on women’s health, what do you see as the strongest link between family planning and economic empowerment and why is the intersection so important to advancing gender equality?

Melinda Gates: It’s interesting that you used the word link, because I sometimes think about economic empowerment as the culmination of a chain of events, and family planning is the first link on that chain.

With contraceptives, you can protect your health instead of putting your body through the rigors of pregnancy and child birth when you don’t want to. With contraceptives, you can finish your schooling. With contraceptives, you can work outside the home and save up money if you choose to do so. Health, education, and a job. Those are foundations of prosperity, and they all depend on the ability to plan.

But economic empowerment doesn’t just mean earning money. It also means having the power to decide how to spend it. In that sense, family planning is itself a form of economic empowerment. It’s a woman using a tool to take control of her life, to decide how her family is going to spend its resources, to make sure that there is enough to invest in each child and create a good life.

Katja Iversen: As part of this strategy – and in your end-of-year letter – you highlight the importance of investing in women’s access to technology as a tool for economic empowerment. Through your experiences and interactions around the world, how have you seen technology – including but certainly not limited to mobile phones – used to advance gender equality?

Melinda Gates: What digital technology can do is shatter isolation. One of the ways societies reinforce gender roles is by confining women to those roles. Confining them to the home. Confining them to the informal economy. Technology provides access to worlds they’ve never been included in before. A woman farmer who was starved for up-to-date information about good farming practices can get it on her phone. A girl who was deprived of basic knowledge about sex and contraceptives can use a social network to learn from her peers.

Last year, I saw a great example in Go-Jek, an Indonesian mobile platform for rides, food deliveries, and other on-demand services.

A woman named Nikmah told me she’d tried for years to support her three children by selling vegetables, but there was never enough money. Today, though, Nikmah is one of more than a million Indonesians making a living through Go-Jek. The app connects her to a steady stream of customers, so her income is up significantly.

But it’s not just that. Since Go-Jek also pays her digitally, Nikmah has opened a mobile bank account, which gives her access to range of financial services. And through her phone, she’s formed a network with other women service providers, who pool their savings and make loans to each other in case of emergency.

Nikmah is using her phone to find good-paying work, manage her money, and connect to a community of women she can lean on when necessary. Those are huge changes.

It’s important, though, to keep what technology can and can’t do in perspective. Technology is a tool. It can help us solve problems if everybody has equal access and it’s well-designed. But it is not a solution by itself. While we’re working toward digitally powered solutions to gender inequality, we have to keep working on analog solutions, too—changes to discriminatory laws, norms, and policies that maintain the inequitable status quo.

Katja Iversen: Research shows that companies and governments with stronger female leadership fare better than companies and governments with less female representation. Despite the evidence, women remain underrepresented across industries including the technology sector. As a respected leader in business, technology, and gender equality, how do you think we can get the tech sector to stand up for gender equality and invest in women’s inclusion and leadership at all levels — from corporate board rooms, to the programming teams, and through the supply chain?

Melinda Gates: First, I appreciate the fact that you’re asking the question. This crisis is no longer invisible, and that’s a big part of solving it. I helped create something called the Reboot Representation Tech Coalition. In our research, we surveyed 32 tech companies and found that although they spent $500 million on philanthropic giving every year, only 5 percent of that went to closing the gender gap in the field. Now that it’s clear just how many opportunities tech companies were missing, they can begin to take fuller advantage of those opportunities.

There is no silver bullet solution, because there are so many different barriers keeping women out of the technology field. We need to encourage girls to think that computers are for them, not just for boys. We need to redesign college computer science courses to engage more different types of students. We need to make sure that tech workplaces are welcoming environments where women want to be. We need to make sure that female tech entrepreneurs can get funding to start their own companies. Right now, just 2 percent of venture capital funding in the United States is going to companies owned by women. As you say, it’s at every level.

One of the things we can do is change the way we think about how people get into tech. We hear a lot about a pipeline, but the problem with that metaphor that it makes it seem like if you’re not already in it, you’re out. A pipeline only has one opening, at the beginning. That is a very restrictive way of looking at how to get people involved in tech.

I think of tech more like a pathway—one that has as many on-ramps as we want to build. We need to provide women in all stages and from all walks of life with on-ramps that can get them from where they are to a career in tech.

Katja Iversen: I love that you call yourself an impatient optimist – I am one myself – even when progress is sometimes painstakingly slow, and the world of development can be complex and frustrating. Based on your personal experience, what advice would you offer young women working in development to remain resilient, passionate, and committed optimists?

Melinda Gates: Whenever I get discouraged, and I do get discouraged, I try to remind myself of two things.

First, how much the key metrics have improved over the past several years. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again and again. The number of children who die before their fifth birthday has been cut in half in just the past 25 years. I am impatient to get that number as close to zero as possible, and, since I know how much progress we’ve already made, I’m optimistic we can make more.

Second, I remind myself about the people those metrics represent. I recently published a book, The Moment of Lift, about some of the brave, inspiring people I have met around the world over the years. Women who face nearly impossible odds but who fight and fight. The women in my book changed my life by sharing their stories with me. They called me to action. And whenever I’m in danger of forgetting why I do this work, I think of them and how hard they work to give themselves a better life. Then I get back to work, too.

Katja Iversen: We are so excited you will join us at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference, which will focus on power and how it can drive – or hinder – progress and change for girls and women, and therefore for all.  As a leading voice in development and in women’s rights globally, we would love to hear your perspective on the topic. How would you fill in the blank?  I believe in the power of _______________.

Melinda Gates: Your voice.

Everybody matters. Everybody has an important story to tell. Everybody can change the world if they find and raise their voice. I hope that together, we in the Women Deliver community can make sure every woman can use her power to speak up and be heard.