Q&A With Melinda Gates

We sat down with Melinda Gates over Skype to discuss gender equality and her new book, “The Moment of Lift”.

I recently joined an amazing book club, South Bay Women’s Book Club, where book club organizer, Sunaina Severenssen, sought out and entered her group into The Moment of Lift Book Club sweepstakes. Winners of the sweepstakes got to participate in a skype video call with Melinda Gates. Sunaina won!

The conversation was incredible. Women came together to share stories about their experiences with gender equality both in the home and in the workplace. Melinda asked us a few questions, we asked her a few questions. It was a mutually beneficial swapping of information.

Q: You talk about the empathy gap in your book. How do you think we can bridge that empathy gap and get the rest of the world to care about what’s happening with children and women’s issues around the world?

A: Let me start by saying this, I believe that women should be able to do whatever they want in society. Get married, not get married. Have kids, not have kids. Work, not work. We should be able to do whatever it is we want to do.

To your question, the empathy gap, I think if more people could do what you did like travel to Pakistan, that would help. Not everybody is lucky enough to travel but if they could travel, or alternatively I’ve seen many teenagers and college students use online technology today. If we start to learn about other people and other cultures and we start to realize how similar we are versus different. We relate differently. Then we start to be able to do exactly what you said and what I wrote about in my book. You start to put yourselves in their shoes and you say, “That could be me! But for this education, but for my parents having access to good health systems, or but for my parents getting us to the United States. That could be me as that young girl in that situation or that woman trying to raise her children or get a job in that country to support herself or her family.” The more we can connect with others the more we start to realize we do have so much, we are lucky to be born in this country, and we have a lot to offer to help and we should!

Q: In the book, you talked about choosing to take a more traditional path for yourself at times. It seemed like Bill was surprised when you said, “no I’m not going back to work.” You also mentioned in the early days you didn’t consider yourself a feminist, do you feel like Bill was maybe more of a feminist at least to begin with than you were?

A: Interesting question. The conversation went just like that “I’m leaving work” and it was that forceful and he was so surprised. I reflected on that a lot. In a sense he definitely had that more inculcated in him than I did because as I said in the book his mom was on numerous boards here in Seattle and eventually on some national corporate boards. He was used to seeing a mom who worked in his family and like my family, he grew up doing the dishes with his sister. He definitely had it in theory.

He knew how much I enjoyed working at Microsoft, he knew I found it exhilarating and I loved doing that. He enjoyed having me there. I was just so certain we wanted to have kids and raise them with the values we both believed in. Somebody had to be home at least a good chunk of the time. Particularly because he was the CEO and he traveled so much. He pressed me right from the beginning, “well what else are you going to do,” at first I took it as a negative thing and I was like “what do you mean? I’m raising our daughter?” But then I realized he understood I really did enjoy working.

I would say yes in a certain sense he was a feminist earlier than I was. But on the other hand, I would say now he has a lot more distance to travel than I do, so now it’s me bringing him along. Ok, you say you believe in this, how are we going to live that out in the work we do at the foundation? Those conversations haven’t always been easy because he makes those decisions based on data. Data is a great thing to make decisions off of. But guess what, the world hasn’t collected enough data about women. Because who has the decision making authority to decide what surveys we would do? Usually men. So I have to make certain decisions and move forward without the data and then build the infrastructure to actually collect that data. Then once he sees the data, he’s all on board, oh we’ll get more vaccines out if we get them in the hands of women, let’s do it!

Q: In your book you mention several times the change for women started when women gathered together to talk. In regards to social media, do you think it’s possible to have a true connection to speak with people through social media? Do you think it helps or has a negative effect?

A: Social media has changed things so much. The data is pretty mixed so far on whether it helps. Here is what I think I know intuitively, let’s take all of you on this book club, you decide you’re going to get together on social media just as your small group and you already know each other, so then you start sharing ideas and you have some trust build up. I think you can absolutely have authentic connections in that way. If you go online and you’re meeting people anonymously, it’s not always authentic. That’s where we run into problems, particularly with teenagers, where they put themselves out there, then they get attacked. That’s not helpful.

I looked at the statistics on women and perfectionism. I thought, “oh maybe perfectionism is going down,” but no, it’s actually going up in women and it’s due to social media!  The thing I will say positively about social media and the internet, if you get together online with a group that you maybe don’t know, but you’re studying something together, you’re learning together, you can have authentic conversations. That’s my imperfect answer but that’s what I feel like I know and have seen over the years. My hope is that we can turn it so that people can use it for good and there are services where you can help a woman buy a goat, then she can get milk and protein for her family, then that woman then can afford to buy some chickens for another family. Those are ways we can connect online and make a difference for women in the developing world.

Q: Around the concept of let your heart break, you said we need to be able to absorb the pain or the evil in order to raise our voice and seek justice. But justice isn’t the same as vengeance. For me, it feels like a lot of the me too movement is turning into about vengeance. How do we absorb that pain so that we can raise our voice in a positive manner and seek justice?

A: It’s not easy. I don’t think there is any easy answer. I think sometimes you get a movement where it starts with a good intention, then it swings too far. What I know to be true from the data about sexual harassment is if a woman is sexually harassed in her job in the united states, they leave at an 80% rate within the next 2 years. The number of women who are sexually harassed in their jobs in the US is enormous. We need to do something about that, we need to be able to bring the issue to the forefront, people need to be able to tell their stories. We need to hold corporate leaders accountable for making policy changes in their corporation. I don’t think it needs to be done in an angry way. What gets tricky, if the person who is at the head of the corporation, let’s be honest they’re mostly males, less than 5% are females. Some are very enlightened and say I hear you, we’ll make those changes. It’s the ones who are fixed in place, where sometimes the only way to respond is with the head of steam and maybe it takes another tool.

We need to be careful and say, this is not all men. I work with lovely men in the workplace, I’ve worked with not so great men in the workplace, I definitely have those experiences, but I’ve I worked with some amazing men who believe in women as much as women believe in women. And we need to bring their voices forward and make them part of it, so that it’s as much men and women saying this is what’s right for society. We should have a great paid family medical leave policy in the federal, state, and corporate level. We should. It takes men to help with that conversation. Find the male advocates and bring them forward.

One thing that surprised me about the book and who it resonated with. I expected it to resonate with women, particularly young working women. It also resonated with a lot of older males. I couldn’t figure it out at first until they started telling me their stories. A lot of them were in various positions of management or power. They felt like they were doing the right thing. It wasn’t until they raised their daughters that when their daughter hit the work force they saw her get stifled compared to their sons. They thought, oh my gosh, I didn’t push hard enough in my company to get the right things done. By laying out the data and telling stories in my book, the men went, “oh I need to do more here,” or many other people’s daughters won’t make it as far up. I tried not to attack them but to say hey they need to be part of the solution. It was interesting the positive response from that.

Q: As a mom with daughters what advice do you give them about the work life balance and having it all, all those questions men never get asked?

A: I tell them that if they choose to get married, they should choose their partner very carefully. It is the most important decision they will make in their life. That person will have a profound effect on them and they will have a profound effect on their partner. You want to make sure they have the same values, so that when you get into the tension points, like if you choose to have children, there is more stress in the household, then you can work through it. You have to make sure, they are going to fully support your life dreams and vice versa. That means sometimes there are trade-offs. Who you choose to be in a partnership is the most important decision. If they really believe in you and you believe in them you can work these things out. Won’t always be easy, but you’ll figure ways to work it out.

By having this conversation with Melinda we were able to start knocking down those walls, or opening the gates as Melinda says in the book, to taking steps toward gender equality.

I am so grateful to have had this experience and that I got to interact with Melinda Gates personally. She is an analytically driven and strategic leader. She sets goals, measures success, and adjusts accordingly. As an analytics professional in my day-to-day career, it is incredibly refreshing to hear a leader thrive with a similar mindset!! I learned so much about Melinda and The Gates Foundation through her book, The Moment of Lift. I highly recommend grabbing a copy and giving it a read! She also narrates the book herself on audible, so if you want to hear it from her voice that’s a great option as well.

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