Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation co-chair and computer science grad Melinda Gates, 52, uses data to create a whole new world. Hers is not virtual world but a very real one that is home to growing millions from the fringes of progress who are finally being counted and heard.
Data, evaluation and course-correction that are key to efficiency are the cornerstones of Melinda’s equitable new world, where girls stay in school, women choose how many children they have, people get medicine when they need it, and have opportunities to earn enough and some to pull themselves and their families out of generations of poverty.
“Data doesn’t exist in many areas, and when it does, it’s sexist and misses women and girls entirely,” said Melinda. To correct that, the Gates Foundation invested $80 million over the next three years to improve the way data is collected and used to close gaps in gender equality at home, in the workplace, in society and in governance.
“We don’t have good data on women and girls, we cannot close the gender gap without first closing the data gap. Gaps and biases reinforce the social stereotypes and cultural practices that don’t value women and girls,” said Melinda.
Her grand plan is to use data to equip communities, civil society and decision makers with clearer evidence about what works and what doesn’t in addressing global health and development problems that disproportionately affect women and girls, including maternal, newborn and child health, nutrition, agriculture and financial services.
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Spotlight on women
Progress is there, but not fast enough for the impatient optimist. “The world is now talking about it (gender equality), it didn’t five years ago. We need to make it part of the conversation of country leaders. Prime Minister Modi talking of women and children, sanitation, investment in girls and changing people’s mindset about gender equality in his speeches is pretty awesome,” she says.
To make gender equality primary, not secondary, to development conversations, women need to be valued for the unpaid and hidden work they do, such as cooking, cleaning, and caring. “The time spent on unpaid work at home also has implications on education, getting jobs or starting a business. It is often goes unrecognized, but it underpins every society and strengthens every economy,” says Melinda.
Violence against women
“You (people in India) now hear more talk about it, you hear more about reality. Society is no longer closing the door to violence or speaking of it in a hush-hush way. India has free press, people are talking about violence, women are talking about violence. The only way ahead is to have conversations out in public to address gaps and push for a country to commit to change,” says Melinda.
Watch: Melinda gives a TED talk on putting birth control back on the agenda
“Having girls in quality secondary level school will make a huge difference, educated girls will change the world. Everything changes for girl once she gets an education, she gets a voice, she speaks against injustice. She lifts the whole family out of poverty,” she says.
“Staying in school prevents child marriage, early pregnancy, helps women choose the size of their families. An unplanned pregnancy often means that girls are forced to drop out of school and that women can no longer work outside the home, both of which contribute to keeping families and communities trapped in cycles of poverty,” says Melinda. Unplanned pregnancies also carry significant health risks to both women and their children.
Why career matters
Computer science offers the best jobs in the economy. The technology sector is connected to all industry, it offers great pay and the best opportunities, and girls are losing points by not studying STEM subjects. “I can’t speak for India but girls in the US are not choosing science STEM at every level -- grade school, middle school, high school and grad school – because when they look at the industry, it doesn’t look welcoming,” says Melinda.
“I am a computer science major myself, and when I was in grad school in the ‘80s, 37% computer science grads were women. Now it’s down to 18%. India, with its powerful tech industry, must work to make sure it doesn’t go the US way,” she says.
Progress, but not enough
“More women in India are getting skilled healthcare and going to health facilities for delivery and family planning and it is showing results– unplanned pregnancies are down, maternal deaths are down, neonatal deaths are down and now education levels will go up as more girls stay in school,” says Melinda.
“Why women don’t use contraception is a cultural issue – in India it is mothers in law, in Africa it’s husbands… You have to offer them a mix of products, different contraceptive choices that give them the option of choosing the one that suits them best,” she says .
Over the last four years, making contraceptives available have helped millions of unintended pregnancies and saved them from unsafe abortions. “A women who’s just had her first child speaks to an Asha (government’s accredited social health activist) about contraception, and then they can together get support from the husband,” she says.“All parents have hopes and dreams for their kids and realize that the fewer kids they have, the more likely are they to get a good education and jobs. Husbands do support their wives and want smaller families,” she says.
“Our work with governments in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar shows that women who would have had six kids are choosing two when they have an option,” says Melinda.