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How the coronavirus crisis influences Melinda Gates’ $1 billion commitment to gender equality

May 11, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC
Melinda Gates is pushing for a solution to the caregiving crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Jasper Juinen—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is working overtime responding to the coronavirus pandemic, from vaccine research to protecting the communities most vulnerable to the virus. But Melinda Gates is simultaneously tackling another problem being illuminated by the present moment: the crisis in caregiving that threatens to set women back in the U.S. workforce.

Accessible, affordable childcare will be essential to restarting the economy—and ensuring that women still have a place in it, Gates argues. She talked to Fortune about how the U.S. can use this inflection point to transform childcare, why women leaders have come to the fore during the crisis, and how the pandemic affects her $1 billion commitment to gender equality. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fortune: You recently wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about the crisis facing the caregiving industry. What are the risks facing our economy, workers, and women right now if we can’t scale caregiving, as you describe, during the pandemic?

Melinda Gates: If we don’t scale, you’re going to see a lot of women who can’t go back to work. If you look at our economy, 85% of nurses are women. If there’s not a caregiving solution and their kids are out of school or their elderly parent isn’t cared for, they can’t work. Sixty-two percent of low-wage workers are women—they won’t be able to go to what we call those essential jobs.

It would be tragic for women. We will set women back if we don’t address this issue. This crisis is exposing weaknesses in our system—something that’s been hidden is now visible—and we need to use this opportunity to do the right thing. It’s time.

Do you think we will use this crisis to fix those problems that have been made visible?

People are definitely talking about it, partly because of the stress in their homes. Parents with two kids at home, parents who had to bring their elderly grandparent back into the home. The stress in the home right now is high. The stress is visible. People are saying, I’m barely making this work from home. What happens when my company reopens? It’s there, it’s exposed, people are seeing it, talking about it. Now is the time that leaders need to step up and do the right thing.

For example, we’re the only industrialized nation without paid family and medical leave. If we don’t see it now, we’re never going to see it. This is the time.

You’ve made a $1 billion commitment to gender equality. How does that long-term commitment change as the world changes with this pandemic?

That long-term commitment stays exactly the same as it was. Things I was addressing up front were barriers for women: domestic violence, caregiving—this invisible work that is now visible. My commitment stays the same.

Now I’m looking at: Where do we put more pressure? We were already working to put pressure on Congress, but I hadn’t thought through the deeper pieces—how about more flexible work hours for workers? We’ll go deeper into those business pieces: more credits for childcare options, some businesses doing on-site childcare. We need to expect more from businesses than we have.

Part of your $1 billion commitment is to fast-track women in sectors with outsized impact on society. Has the pandemic affected how you view which sectors have that outsized impact and need?

Political leadership was already on my list, but is now more deeply on my list. We need far more women and people of color in Congress and in our statehouses. When you have people living in today’s society who understand the stresses on families, they are the ones who can help us pass the right policies. We need to have them in these positions of power.

My desire and plan to go deeper on that is emboldened by this crisis because I see leaders stepping up. I see which ones are listening. I see what Nancy Pelosi and Chancellor Angela Merkel are doing, and I respect that. We need more of those kinds of voices at the table so we design the right policies.

Why, in your view, have we seen effective leadership from women leaders during this crisis?

They understand. They have been wearing these hats their whole lives. They saw their mother struggle to care for the kids and have employment and get an education. Women know the barriers—they’ve lived the barriers that women have been up against in society. They see the needs of our kids and elderly parents. They’ve been trying to hold it together and make it work. And they’re finally saying, we can do this, in a smart way, a compassionate way, and take care of everybody. Boy, are you seeing it with Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Women get the full picture. They get to live their full lives.

I feel for men. We’ve said to men, you need to go off to work. But we haven’t let men live their full lives. We need everyone to live their full lives. As we look at rebuilding society, we need many voices at the table saying this is what we want for our country going forward.

Are male leaders around the globe coming away from this crisis with those same realizations?

You have to go leader by leader and say who sees it and who doesn’t. Generally, a younger male leader sees it. They tend to see it more, versus an older generation of males because the workforce was different. The expectations were different. We need to amplify the ones who do, quite frankly, get it.

How do we stop repeating history and get people to listen to these lessons this time?

There’s a quote: never waste a good crisis. I look at what came after World War II and people coming together and the institutions that were founded, like NATO, like the World Health Organization. As we come out this crisis and we’re rebuilding, that’s the time to make sure we have diverse voices at the table so we design the future we want. And so we don’t just design these multilateral institutions that keep the world safe, but more.

If there had been more women at those tables, we would have kept the “war nurseries” of World War II open. We would have built a more robust childcare system. It was a missed opportunity because we didn’t have more women at those tables. As we rebuild, we need to have lots of diversity at those tables to decide what we want society and the world to look like.

This is possible. We can put the right policies in place. Part of America’s ingenuity is that we know how to imagine and build things. On this one, it’s just time that we pay attention and build what we need.

More on the most powerful women in business from Fortune:

—Chrissy Taylor on keeping Enterprise’s rental fleet moving, and her family’s business afloat
—A Harvard Business School professor reimagines capitalism
—Sheryl Sandberg: The pandemic is creating a “double double shift” for women
—Inside Lyft’s coronavirus response team
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: The double burdens that hold women back

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