Melinda Gates has a strong message about women’s equality: ‘It’s going to take all of us’

23rd Jul 19 | Lifestyle

The philanthropist speaks to Prudence Wade about feminism, why she feels compelled to give back and the importance of taking care of yourself.

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Melinda Gates has well and truly reached the level of modern-day feminist rockstar. Before going on stage for the only UK stop of her book tour, the venue is packed to the rafters and bubbling with anticipation, as songs like Stronger by Kelly Clarkson boom from the speakers.

After years being known as ‘Bill Gates’ wife’, Melinda has stepped out of her husband’s shadow. She’s dedicated 20 years of her life to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is reportedly the largest private foundation in the world and making real and tangible improvements to everything from global health to women’s equality.

The 54-year-old is here to talk about her first book, The Moment Of Lift, and here, she reveals the meaning behind the title.

“I compare it to when a rocket leaves the ground and pulls against those gravitational forces that hold it down, and goes off to the moon,” she explains – an analogy which is close to her heart, as Gates’ father was an aerospace engineer who worked on the Apollo missions. “I’m equating that to women – we have to break through all the gravitational things that pull women down, and if you remove those barriers you’ll not only lift them up, they’ll start to lift everyone else up as well.”

Gates is one of the most sincere people I’ve ever spoken to, without even a trace of saccharine when saying things like “the world is made up of lots of different people with lots of different viewpoints, and I think society’s better off when you incorporate all of these”, and “men have to be willing to help women and lift them up – it’s going to take all of us”.

Melinda Gates, Co-chair of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, interacts with young married women who belong to a YWSHG (Young Women Self Help Group) in a room in the Government Primary School during her visit to Kola village, Barabanki District, Uttar Pradesh, India on March 13, 2016.
(Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/PA)

Her book is full of personal, moving anecdotes from women she’s met all over the world, along with cold, hard facts showing that economies will thrive if we’re all equal.

Early on in her time at the foundation, Gates realised, “Every thousand dollars we were putting down wasn’t going as far as it could, because we weren’t specifically looking at the issues related to women,” she explains. “Our dollar can go further if we empower women, because if you invest in her, the truth is, she invests in everyone around her.”

Gates has been a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement, which fits into her ethos of lifting people up. And she’s seeing real, tangible change from the conversations around Time’s Up, saying: “Women are speaking up and many men are standing beside them – not all men, but some – and we are changing how you treat a woman in the workplace because of that. We’re having real conversations and there are consequences.”

Melinda and Bill Gates
(Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/PA)

Another reason Gates is so supportive of the movement is because she’s seen first-hand the impact abuse can have on women. She’s a private person, so I was surprised when she started speaking candidly about her experience with an abusive relationship before meeting Bill, without even being prompted.

“It’s never OK; it silences a woman,” she says. “I lost my voice for a while because of what had happened to me during that period of my life, and I didn’t really even understand its full effect on me until several years ago.”

Melinda Gates in London
Gates onstage in London (Ed Thompson for Pivotal Ventures/PA)

Luckily, Gates has well and truly got her voice back, and she uses it to empower other women. Even if she hadn’t met Bill and started the foundation, there’s no doubt in her mind she’d be doing something philanthropic. It’s something Gates learned from her parents and the Ursuline nuns from her Catholic high school in Texas. “Those nuns taught us that one person can make a difference in the life of someone else,” she explains. “I believe that all these little drops we put in the pond have ripple effects that we often don’t even know about.” It’s an ethos Gates has passed down to her three children, adding that they “get a very small allowance, but I expect them to give some of it back”.

There’s a psychological toll to dedicating your life to this kind of philanthropic work. Many of the stories Gates tells in her book are devastating tales of trauma from women all over world. “I always take time at the end of a trip to process what I’ve seen, to take in the heartbreak and not try to push it away,” she says frankly. “It’s truly heartbreaking, because women are in dire situations.”

Gates attends the G-7 Finance on July 18
Gates attends the G-7 Finance meeting on July 18 (Michel Euler/AP)

For Gates, this process time is incredibly important. “Sometimes, I’ll reach out to a friend, sometimes it’ll be through meditation, or just a long walk out in nature,” she says. After she’s done that, she’ll be able to go home and say: “Now, what can we do?”

But even though she works incredibly hard, Gates still has some downtime – whether it’s in the garden, walking with friends, cycling or watching TV with Bill. With her characteristic wisdom, she says: “You have to take care of yourself if you’re going to help others.”

The Moment Of Lift is published by Bluebird, priced £16.99. Available now. For more information on Melinda Gates’ work, visit www.evoke.org.

© Press Association 2019

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