Melinda Gates on gender equality, the G7, and Trudeau and Macron as ’next group’ of world leaders

The co-chair of the G7 gender advisory council says they plan to be about more than just talk
Melinda Gates speaks on a panel at the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council meeting in Ottawa, Ontario. (Photography by Sarah Dea)

The annual Group of Seven (G7) summit of the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, the U.S. and Canada is being held in early June in Charlevoix, Que. As this year’s host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets to add a special theme to the G7’s 2018 agenda, and Trudeau has chosen gender equality.

It’s the sort of initiative that skeptics might write off as worthy rather than weighty. But the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council set up to propose recommendations for Trudeau to take to the summit has undeniable heft, bringing together the likes of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, the outspoken Liberian activist, and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, the epitome of the Davos set.

And then there are the council co-chairs, Canada’s ambassador to France, Isabelle Hudon, and Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose name evokes, of course, immense software wealth and global philanthropic reach. Melinda Gates sat down with Maclean’s in Ottawa to discuss the council’s work.

Q: Inequality between men and women has so many dimensions, it’s such a big, diffuse set of issues, that I wonder how your council will find a way to actually get stuff done, and avoid just saying the right words. Is that the challenge?

A: Exactly. That came up in our council meeting [in Ottawa]. How do we get concrete actions? These large governmental bodies, though, are important because they signal what’s important to the world. And so the fact that Prime Minister Trudeau—behind economics, security and the environment, which are always the core tenets the G7 works on—has picked gender equality signals to the world the importance of it. Our job is to try and give him things that are concrete and actionable that he can take to the other G7 leaders, knowing we can’t put everything on the table.

MORE: Melinda Gates on ending inequalities between sexes

Q: What sorts of ideas are you considering?

A: I think one of the most important things that we will put on the table is, how do we as a world collect more data on women? How do we invest in their health, their education, and economic opportunity? We have some ideas in each of those areas. And then, how do we make sure that behind that comes resources? So that won’t all happen at this G7, but the fact that we can get a few things done at the G7 level, then we can keep the pressure on in all the other government bodies. The G7 said this is important, so what are you going to do about it?

Q: You mention collecting more data, which I imagine will sound to a lot of people like the driest part. Why is that necessary and where don’t we have the data we need?

A: It seems dry, but it’s so important. So here’s an example. The UN set these big Millennium Development Goals years ago. One of the things they said is we know education is important, we want to get parity for boys and girls in primary education. It was the only thing they could measure. They didn’t put a goal down for secondary school because they had no way to measure it.

So guess what? As a world, we resourced primary schools. Low-income countries set policies that education was free or compulsory. So all these things happened. We actually have parity for boys and girls now at primary education.

One of the things we have to do for girls is measure if they are making it through secondary school, and also if they are going to a quality secondary school. Until we get parity for boys and girls in secondary school, and until we start to measure the quality of it, we won’t know that we’re getting them an education that will get them a job in the formal economy. So that’s a place that we can absolutely measure, put resources behind, get something done.

Q: You have experience in this sort of thing through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A: We work as a foundation in health and economic empowerment. In the health space, we’re trying to tackle HIV/AIDS. Well, when the UN goals set out to tackle HIV/AIDS, and even when we started to tackle HIV/AIS as a foundation, we didn’t know that the biggest group that’s most affected is 15- to 24-year-old girls. They have the highest incidence rate and in certain countries it’s staggering how much more than boys. Without knowing that, you don’t know where to shift the resources and what tools to create.

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Q: Why are there these gaps in what we know?

A: The biggest household survey used around the world is the DHS [Demographic and Health] survey used by USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development]. It’s kind of the gold standard used for all kinds of things—health, economics, whether kids are getting an education.

As soon as they ask in the household, “Who has economic means?”, well, the man tends to answer, because he’s usually the most vociferous. He answers about his job, and as soon as he does that, we never ask the woman about her means. And it turns out, we’re learning all over the world, that women actually have means.

They get it through the informal sector. They keep it and store it in different ways. It’s their rainy-day fund. When there’s a health shock in the family, they’ll contribute some of their funds. Well, without knowing women’s economic means, we can’t actually influence them or help them make decisions. So that’s a place where there’s a huge data gap.

Q: The G7 is a club of rich countries. But you’ve been talking mainly about problems in poor countries. How do you broach these subjects without seeming like you’re lecturing, especially on sensitive issues like the roles of men and women in society?

A: The only way is to do it it use grassroots organizations that have been on the ground for a very long time and are part of the culture and part of the change. If you want to get any cultural and social change, it has to come within, it won’t come from outside. It’s like if the U.S. came and told Canada, “You should have a gender quota.” You’d be like, “Well who are you to tell me!”

Q: We’d be more likely to tell you!

A: On that one, you’d be more likely to tell us.

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Q: We’re more smug, more willing to throw that around.

A: And Americans would say, “Well, who are you to tell us!” Well, low-income countries feel the same way, and they should. But what you can do is go in and say, “Do we have the same goals? Do we have the same goals around health? Do you want to eliminate malaria, are you interested in contraceptives?”

It turns out, 200 million women don’t have access to contraceptives, and are telling us they would like to have them. Governments are getting interested in that issue. Why? Because in a low-income country, if they allow women to space the births of their children, their children are more likely to survive and the women are more likely to survive childbirth.

So you go in. You talk to civil society, you talk to the NGOs. You talk to faith leaders. They will actually help you carry the message. In Senegal, imams told me the Koran absolutely allows for contraceptives, but the moms at the village level don’t know that, we will help get the message out. So they will take it up in a way that’s culturally appropriate in their context.

Q: Have you had the experience, though, of looking at somebody you’re talking with and realizing you’re not getting through to them because they feel that you’re trying to impose another set of cultural values and beliefs?

A: It happens at times. You’re almost talking across one another. But, I have to say, I’ve been at this work for 18 years, and I just learned early on that you don’t go into a country assuming you know more, ever. Ever. I don’t know, we learned pretty early on.

One of the very first people I talked to was actually former president Jimmy Carter. He’d been doing this sort of work on global health for a long time, and we were just getting started. I asked him in private, “what have you learned that we should know?” And he said, hands down, you have to learn that anyplace you go to work in the world, it has to be their work. You can fly in and try to make change. You’ll get it for a little while, and then it’ll go back. You want lasting change? They have to own it. Ultimately that’s what sustains change.

Q: We’ve been talking mainly about the developing world. Do you think the G7 should also be addressing the challenges still facing rich countries, like getting more women CEOs, more women on corporate boards?

A: Absolutely. You bet. Flying home from these often low-income countries, I had to turn the lens back on myself. I’d often say, “Oh, if only women had this, if only they were empowered in that way.” I had to turn that back on myself and ask, “How far are we really in the U.S.?”

The U.S. has its own set of issues. The UK has a set of issues. France does, Germany does, Canada does. You’d be surprised how similar those issues are. Sexual harassment is everywhere, across the world. I don’t care if you sit in an Indian village, on the floor of a hut in Africa, or on a corporate board in the United States—there isn’t a woman who hasn’t faced sexual harassment. So there are a lot of cross-cutting issues.

My feeling is if high-income countries will make the right investments, but also turn the finger back on themselves, and say, “How far have we really come and how much further do we have to do?” If they keep getting there, it’s going to help the rest of the world advance faster.

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Q: I’m going to circle around to the question of what your council can actually accomplish in practical terms. Will you be asking countries like Canada to put more money on the table? Will you make a plea for more resources to pursue whatever priorities you set out? 

A: We could do that. I don’t think that will happen at this G7, because this is the first time it’s been on the agenda. What I’ve seen in the past is that an issue will get on the agenda, and then more work will need to come behind it. So I think a set of recommendations on what needs to get done around gender will come at this G7.

And then I think at future G7 meetings, or potentially other bodies, will then hold countries to task. What are you really doing? Part of it also goes back to the data—those two pieces go hand in hand. They’ll need some resources to actually start to collect the data. Then when they’ve got the data, they’ll say this is where we need to put down the big pots of money down and make some investments.

Q: You’re talking about a process that needs to continue beyond Canada’s presidency of the G7 this year. Next year is France’s turn. Do you expect continuity when French President Emmanuel Macron takes over from Prime Minister Trudeau?

A: Absolutely. Prime Minister Trudeau and President Macron and Ambassador Hudon and I actually met recently, and after that, I met privately with President Macron. And, yes, I think there will be continuity around the gender council. He’s very interested in the topic.

To be honest, it’s not surprising to me. These are the two youngest leaders we have at the G7. They’re part of this next group. They see the millennials coming up. They see what’s happening, equality being demanded, the demands millennials are putting on companies and on institutions to change. They know where society is changing more than an older leader does. So it’s great that they are willing to take it up.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)