Melinda Gates has revealed in a column for Time magazine that she is ploughing $1 billion of her own cash into expanding the influence of women throughout the US – particularly in the world of work. 
“In 2018,” she writes, “there were more men named James running Fortune 500 companies than there were women. This year, only one CEO on that list of 500 is a woman of colour. Women are 51% of the population but hold only 24% of the seats in Congress. My reaction to facts like these is a complicated mix of outrage and optimism. I imagine I’m not alone. It’s frustrating – even heartbreaking – to confront evidence of the many ways our country continues to hold women back.”
Despite that backdrop, though, Gates says that a “window of opportunity” has been forced open by women who have taken part in marches devoted to female causes, by others who have driven the global #MeToo movement and by “the record number of women who ran for office in 2018 and won”.
She also cites the efforts of women “who are working multiple jobs, caring for multiple loved ones, and proving you don’t have to protest or enter politics to challenge a system stacked against you. It wasn’t just grand gestures that got us here. It was daily acts of courage, too.”
With the spotlight on women’s issues brighter than ever as a result of those developments, Gates argues that it is time to push for broader change. As such, her $1bn will go towards three initiatives:
- dismantling barriers to female advancement by tackling discrimination;
- fast-tracking women in sectors with outsized social impacts, such as technology and the media, and
- mobilising shareholders, consumers and employees to amplify external pressure on firms in need of reform.
Gates writes that gender equality in the US has been chronically underfunded, pointing out: “Data from Candid’s Foundation Directory Online suggests that private donors give $9.27 to higher education and $4.85 to the arts for every $1 they give to women’s issues.”
She adds: “$1bn is a lot of money, but I also recognise that it’s only a small fraction of what’s necessary.” With that in mind, she hopes that her action will be seen as an “an invitation for others to join the cause and make commitments of their own.”
However, is there a risk that her message could be misinterpreted? Could it encourage leaders to think that equality is only possible with the help of large-scale, philanthropic gestures, rather than “daily acts of courage” at grassroots level within organisations?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Philanthropy assists a variety of endeavours, from arts and higher education to sport, so its influence touches and shapes all of our lives in many important respects. The funding that stems from philanthropic initiatives has an enormous social impact, so I have no objection to the focus of Gates’s stated giving strategy. My only question would be if organisations think that philanthropy will pick up the tab for their equality drives, will they come to see those efforts as ‘nice to haves’ and let them fall by the wayside when budgets get tight?
Cooper notes: “Of all the areas that Gates plans to focus on, I think the one that’s likely to have the greatest impact is the third – mobilising shareholders. By all means, get shareholders to question what’s going into the policies of the firms they invest in. And yes – get consumers to join in, too.
“It’s a widely accepted notion that companies no longer ‘own’ their brands in a social sense – instead, they’re shared. Your brand is what the people who are talking about it shape it to be. As we’ve seen with Patagonia, American Eagle and other ethical brands, ‘consumer-campaigners’ are a force to be reckoned with. People are turning away from brands with poor practices and aligning with those that reflect their values. So this type of mobilisation is the area where I think Gates will see the best returns.”
She adds: “Crucially, what Gates has in mind is not an initiative or programme designed to send women away on training courses, for example. It’s a concerted effort to force companies to respond to pressure. Swaying investors is much more difficult than changing the behaviour of consumers, so it’s positive to see her devoting her resources to that task.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity
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Image of Melinda Gates courtesy of JStone, via Shutterstock.