Each year, philanthropists Bill Gates and Melinda Gates release a letter that touches on their work. 2018 marks the 10-year anniversary of the tradition and this year, the pair answered 10 of the toughest questions they have received over the years.
Melinda Gates also answered the following three questions from Lily readers about her faith, what companies can do about the gender pay gap and how funders can best empower the communities they work in.
Lily reader Phillippa Kassover: I understand you are a practicing Catholic, while also promoting birth control around the world. Do you think the Catholic Church will ever come around to this more humane and responsible view of the role of birth control?
Melinda Gates: I realize that the fact I’m a practicing Catholic makes me a pretty unlikely person to be traveling the world as a family planning advocate. But to be honest, I don’t see it as a contradiction at all. I think of the work that I do at our foundation as deeply rooted in Catholic teachings about social justice.
I know that my family, my career, and my life as I know it are all only possible because I had access to contraceptives. Having the ability to decide if and when to get pregnant changes everything for a woman.
For example, if she can space her pregnancies at least three years apart, she’s less likely to die in childbirth. Her baby is nearly twice as likely to survive its first year. She has a better chance of working outside the home and being who she wants to be in the world. What’s more, the benefits ripple across generations. When a woman has fewer children, she can invest more in the health, nutrition, and education of each one—setting them up for a better future. Multiply that story by millions of families, and you start to see why contraceptives are one of the greatest antipoverty innovations the world has ever known. They make life healthier and better not just for women, but for entire societies.
That’s why I believe every woman should have access to contraceptives—and why I believe we must keep working to reach the 214 million women who don’t. If you want to help, consider supporting an organization that’s advancing that mission—with your time, a donation, or by spreading the word about their work.
Lily reader: Funders hold a lot of power and influence when it comes to shaping humanitarian efforts. What are you doing to break the systems and cycles that perpetuate white people (however well meaning) to continue to do to communities, especially communities of color and those historically marginalized?
Melinda Gates: It’s a great question, and one Bill and I are thinking about all the time. There’s a long history of organizations ignoring the needs and realities of the people they are trying to serve — and ultimately reinforcing the inequalities they are trying to dismantle. We try to stay very mindful of that and surround ourselves with people who will hold us accountable.
The bottom line is that we started the foundation because we believe every life has equal value. We try to live out those values not only in the work that we do — but in the way that we do it. When the foundation works on U.S. education, for example, we start by talking to teachers. When we’re working in global health and development, we support the agenda that countries and communities have chosen for themselves. We want to find local leaders who understand the problems and the context better than we do—and then empower them with tools and data to help identify and scale solutions.
Ultimately, I believe that being a good philanthropist comes down to being a good partner—and that the most important part of my job is listening. I mentioned family planning earlier; initially, that wasn’t one of our foundation’s focus areas. But it became one after we started traveling to the world’s poorest places, sitting down with women, and hearing them say that their lives and their children’s lives depended on getting access to contraceptives.
Development works best when you empower people to make the best choices for themselves. That’s exactly what our foundation aims to do.
Lily reader Bettina Sparrowe: What can the private sector do to equalize wages for people doing the same job?
Melinda Gates: Data. Companies should be collecting and tracking data about who is earning what, so that these problems become more visible — and leaders can be held accountable.
But also remember that when we talk about the wage gap, we aren’t just talking about a man and a woman who are working the same job but getting paid differently. The gap also reflects the fact that most of the highest-paying jobs in the highest-paying fields are still going to men.
Only 32 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And African American women and Hispanic women combined hold fewer than 5 percent of the jobs in tech — an industry with outsized influence.
So, companies should also work to get the bias out of hiring practices and take a hard look at their cultures and policies to address the barriers that are keeping talented women and underrepresented minorities from staying and rising up the ranks.
Read Bill and Melinda Gates’s answers to their 10 toughest questions here.