Founded by Melinda French Gates, Pivotal Ventures accelerates social progress by removing barriers that hold people back.

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Gender Equality is Within Our Reach

Melinda French Gates
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The following is an abbreviated version of my Harvard Business Review piece about how we can accelerate the pace of progress and expand women’s power and influence by 2030.

In January 2010, American women found ourselves on the cusp of a milestone. For the first time ever, we were poised to outnumber men in the U.S. workforce. To mark the occasion, The Economist put Rosie the Riveter on its cover and updated her famous call to action, “We can do it,” to announce instead: “We did it!”

A decade later, it’s clear that Rosie’s declaration of victory was premature. While more women may be going to work each day, the same old inequalities have simply followed us to new places. The World Economic Forum projects that it will be a staggering 208 years before the U.S. reaches gender parity.

READ: The daunting, damning number that should spur us to action

Meanwhile, what gains have been made haven’t extended to all women equally. The women historically the most marginalized in this country—including women of color, poor women, and lesbian and trans women—are still the most likely to be trapped in minimum-wage jobs, the least likely to hold managerial roles, and the most likely to face sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

But here’s what makes me optimistic: While it’s still too early to say, “we did it,” there’s unprecedented agreement that it’s time we did. Women are sharing their stories, marching, walking out, running for office, and winning elections in record numbers. The media is amplifying their voices and asking hard questions of the institutions that continue to lock women out. Both the private and public sectors are under new pressure to be part of the solution.

We need to focus that energy on expanding women’s power and influence.

All of this adds up to tremendous energy around gender equality—energy that can be channeled into results. I think we need to focus that energy on expanding women’s power and influence, positioning more women across to the country to make decisions, shape perspectives, and control resources in their homes, their workplaces, and their communities.

To that end, my team at Pivotal Ventures has identified three strategic opportunities where we believe increased capital and coordination can dramatically accelerate the pace of progress and expand women’s power and influence by 2030.

Illustration of a woman wearing a white shirt standing at the head of a long corporate boardroom table

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

1. Dismantle barriers to women’s professional advancement

Many people believe gender inequalities in professional advancement are a reflection of women’s own choices. But history demonstrates that women’s choices are often constrained by their options. For example, my mother, like most women of her generation, didn’t get to attend college or have a career of her own. Like many women of my generation, I did. That almost certainly had less to do with my own abilities or ambitions than with a law known as Title IX that banned sex discrimination by federally funded educational institutions.

The barriers women face today aren’t as visible as the ones addressed by Title IX, but the data tells us they’re still there. Three in particular stand out as especially damaging—and especially solvable if we act.

First, stereotypical representations of women. From our televisions to our textbooks, the stories we’re told about power and influence almost always center on men. These inputs shape how all of us see ourselves and each other. Journalists, the entertainment industry, and storytellers of all types must be encouraged and supported to shape new and better representations of women that challenge society’s prejudices instead of reflecting them.

Melinda Gates's strategy aims to accelerate the pace of progress and achieve measurable results by 2030.

Second, sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. The survivor-driven #MeToo movement has highlighted both the enormous scope of these problems and their terrible cost to society. As organizations continue to respond to this crisis, it’s critical that we prioritize developing solutions that will meet the needs of every woman in the workforce, whether she works in the C suite or on the factory floor.

Third, caregiving. Although most women in the U.S. now work full-time, we still spend roughly twice as many hours on caregiving as men do. Momentum behind a national paid family and medical leave policy is building, and that’s a good thing. But businesses don’t have to wait for a federal policy to start changing their own policies and norms; they can act now. The path to women’s power and influence is littered with obstacles from beginning to end. If we clear the path just a little, history shows that women will make the journey.

An illustration of women standing in line behind each other, each holding the shoulder of the woman standing in front of them.

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

2. Fast-track women in priority sectors

Last year, the New York Times reported that, in 2018, there were more men named James on the Fortune 500 List of CEOs than there were women. And although the percentage of female CEOs went up slightly in 2019, only one of the women on the Fortune list of 500 is a woman of color.

Those dismal statistics help underscore the need for new ways to fast-track women in the most powerful and influential sectors.

We can start by creating new pathways into these sectors. In the not-so-distant past, leaders of male-dominated industries deflected responsibility by blaming their gender gaps on the “pipeline,” arguing that the reason they weren’t hiring more women was that there weren’t enough qualified women candidates. But we now understand that pipelines into male-dominated industries produce mostly male candidates, because, intentionally or not, they were designed that way. We need to replace these pipelines with a system of pathways that will create new entry points for a more diverse group of people to enter these fields.

Of course, it’s not enough to get women onto a career path if they aren’t empowered to succeed once they’re there. Researchers are learning more and more about what it takes to de-bias workplaces. Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist at the Harvard Kennedy School, is working with companies to identify and test a range of best practices for hiring, talent management, and changing workplace culture. She’s also compiled evidence-based recommendations that businesses can implement immediately—from increasing transparency around pay, to being intentional about how work is assigned, to redesigning the process by which promotions are handed out.

Illustration of a woman holding a frame within concentric frames being held by other women.

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

3. Amplify external pressure

As I mentioned, the private sector is under new pressure to be part of the solution. But to unlock the progress we want to see at the pace we want to see it, we need to mobilize key constituencies to turn up that pressure even higher.

Shareholders, consumers, and employees hold disproportionate influence over many private sector institutions. Investors’ votes can push companies to enact changes. Customers can use their purchasing power to reward companies that are part of the solution and punish those that aren’t. Workers can hold their employers accountable by walking out. And imagine what’s possible if shareholders, consumers, and employees work in concert to exert pressure on the same institutions at the same time.

When the pressure is turned up high enough, walls that have long seemed rock solid can start to crack.

We have been waiting to knock down those walls for a very long time—but we’ve never had the opportunity that we have now. If we seize this chance, then maybe the next time Rosie the Riveter tells us “We did it!” she’ll be right.

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