Why don't more women go into computer science?
Why is it so hard to start a business in Africa?
Why do working women get so much more support in the Nordic countries?
Does a president who says disparaging things about women and minorities represent American values?
For the record, she has many answers (in order: not enough pathways, no access to credit, long-standing policies that balance work and family life, and no). For the past 18 years the unanswered issues and the world's ignored, undervalued and forgotten has driven Melinda Gates, her husband and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, and their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private charitable foundation with a $40 billion trust endowment.
This week the couple came to New York to unveil their 2018 Annual Letter, this year titled, appropriately, “The 10 Toughest Questions We Get.” Taking it a step further, they appeared on stage at Hunter College with Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, Emmy and Tony award-winning maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda to take questions from the student-heavy audience and Facebook Live viewers (including Mark Zuckerberg, who asked: “If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?”). We sat down afterwards for roughly 30 minutes to talk #MeToo, Trump, female entrepreneurship, and her biopic dream cast.
F: You have been the world's most powerful advocate for women and girls for over a decade. What are your thoughts on the #MeToo movement?
First of all, it's sad to hear these heartbreaking stories. You have to take it in, and that's hard. But the great thing about it is it's providing transparency to something that women know all over the world. I don't go to a rural village in India, or to a business place in the United States, and not hear about the sexual harassment that's going on, and sometimes sexual violence. We know that the only way to create social change is to have things aired in public. So the transparency phase we're in right now, even though it's painful, is a really good one.
Then the public has to decide they're going to change and you have to work on that change. And one of the things that's so encouraging to me about the #MeToo movement is that 80 women are running for governor this year and over 400 women are running for the U.S. House of Representatives. You have over 50 women running for the senate. Emily's List is saying that 20 times the number of women, that's 20,000, are asking about running for office. What I like is that it's women with all different perspectives, on both sides of the aisle. It's not just one type of candidate. And when you start to get that number of women into political representation with lots of different viewpoints, you'll start to change an entire system.
F: The whole idea of #MeToo stems from a feeling of violation. Do you tap into that? Do you get mad when you hear these stories?
Absolutely. I get angry for all the women all over the world that this has happened to. For me, I take that anger, and it fuels me in the work. I don't shy away from it. On the contrary, I lean into it. I just say, "OK, we have got to change the system." And quite honestly, when I first started talking about empowering women out of Africa, honestly, it was the anger that fueled me. The things I would hear that were happening to women, I would say, "Are you kidding me?"
But then again, I would hear it from my friends, or I would know of my own experience in the computer industry. It’s ridiculous: the number of women it's put on their back foot because their career was stalled, they didn't feel confident, they were victimized, they were hurt, or the number of ideas left off the table because we didn't fund women businesses. That's just ridiculous. I'm excited that this conversation, as tough as it has been, will force us to create the 21st-century workforce that has lots of women working in the U.S. and all over the world.
F: What does a 21st-century workforce look like?
The workforce already represents lots of skin colors, lots of genders. But let's wake up to what we need to do to support it and to make it work so it's not just this old model we have from the 1950s or '60s where the man is out working and the woman is at home taking care of the kids. That's just not the world we live in today. Women are in the workforce. Their kids will tell you: my mom's working, my dad's working. I've been very vocal about paid family medical leave in the U.S. for exactly this reason. A law was passed back 25 years ago, but even the community that brought the bill forward thought it was only a first step. Yet it's taken us 25 years to go back and say, "Shouldn't this be a paid family leave policy?"
F: Six weeks paid family leave is one of the policies put forward by the Trump administration. Let’s talk a little bit about Trump, policies and the cultural climate.
We've worked successfully as a foundation with every administration — Democratic and Republican – since we've started. We are actively trying to work with the Trump administration. But some of the policies have been very difficult. Bill and I totally believe in foreign aid. Less than 1% of the U.S. government budget goes toward foreign aid, and yet those foreign aid dollars are what creates peace and security around the world.
It's been difficult with the Trump Administration because they've tried to decrease foreign aid. Luckily, Congress has held up that foreign aid funding because they know the importance of it. But it means that Bill and I are spending a lot more time on the Hill and making a lot more phone calls to the Hill. Luckily, the president proposes and Congress disposes.
F: You sound politically frustrated. Are you personally shaken by the Trump White House?
I find it discouraging to have the president of the United States saying disparaging things about women and minorities. That is very disturbing to me. I especially think about our values as a nation. As I travel I am asked whether or not those are American values. I say, "No, they're not."
They're not what I see other parents teaching their kids, or teachers teaching their kids. I expect the president of the United States to be a role model for our kids. I know so many young boys and girls who say, "I want to be president of the United States someday." You have to think about what he’s role modeling. And I think what's being role modeled is disturbing at this point.
F: Is role modeling true on the home front?
Bill does the dishes after dinner in our house with me and with the kids. People are, like, "Really?" Or Bill drives the carpool in the morning, takes the kids to school. We didn't do that to role model. It just felt like the right thing to us. But when he first started showing up with our oldest daughter, and she was just in preschool, he started showing up at the classroom because he'd drive her to school and then walk her in, there was all this chatter among the moms.
I asked, "What's going on?" They said, "We're all going home and saying to our husbands if Bill Gates can drive his daughter to school, so can you." And that's just role modelling. Of course he should drive her to school. It's great for him. It's great for her. It's great for their relationship. And guess what? He got to Microsoft 45 minutes later on those mornings, and I think the business was probably still fine.
F: You also invest in women-led businesses. Why is that important?
I believe that empowered women change society. The data tells us. I know that from travelling all over the world, I started to think, "Why aren't women more empowered in this community? In this place in Africa or India?" And I had to turn the question back on myself and ask, "How empowered are we as women in the United States?"
I realized that we're not far enough yet in the U.S. My voice at the Foundation is majority-used for women in the developing world, giving them voice for their issues. But I also do some work with my private office around women's issues in the U.S. I've started to invest in funds that make sure that women-led or -founded businesses actually get funded. When you see that less than 4% of venture capital funding goes to women-led businesses, you know you have a problem. It's not just women not getting access to funds, if you look at minority women getting access to funds, it's .02% of VC funding.
At the end of the day, you've got to change the system. And the only way to change the system is to get more funding flowing towards women. If we lead by example -- what Aspect Ventures, founded by two women, is doing -- others will start to see the business opportunities that they're missing and that these companies actually make money. But it's going to take a while. Guess what? We need diverse voices at the table if we want to have great ideas come forward that work for all of society.
F: Who would cast in your biopic?
The director is the most important thing. We love movies directed by Robert Redford because they tell really deep stories over time. If I was picking the actress for myself, I'd pick Sandra Bullock because I like how real she is. And I'd think you'd have to leave it to Bill to pick who is going to play him. I'm just not sure.
F: How about Gary Oldman?
Oh, that would be nice.
(This interview has been lightly edited, organized and condensed for clarity.)