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A child holds a handmade sign that reads, "GIRLS RULE!"

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A girl holds a sign as she takes part in the Second Annual Women's March Chicago on January 20, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

The Daunting, Damning Number That Should Spur Us to Action

Melinda French Gates
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If you want to keep a secret from the general public, a blog post about accelerating gender parity in globalization is probably a good place to hide it. Even a nerd like me recognizes that it can be hard to turn a new analysis of gender data into clickbait.

I’m going to try anyway, though, because in a blogpost published earlier this week, the World Economic Forum released a new projection that demands our attention.

Based on data from its widely-respected Global Gender Gap Index, WEF estimates that it will take the United States another 208 years to reach gender equality. You read that right. At the current pace of change, gender equality won’t arrive in the U.S. until the year 2227.

Underneath triumphant headlines about women running for office in record numbers, changing the face of the U.S. Congress, and breaking glass ceilings are trendlines that tell a much more somber story about the pace of progress for women in our country.

Although women now earn college and graduate degrees at higher rates than men, they remain concentrated in certain majors, and, early in their careers, they are often channeled into less lucrative jobs. Men are 70 percent more likely to be executives than women their same age. In 2018, there were more Fortune 500 CEOs named James than there were women.

A bar graph showing when global regions are likely to lose the economic gender gap.

On the political front, women are 51 percent of the U.S. population, but hold only 24 percent of seats in Congress. And unlike 59 other countries—including India, Israel, Liberia, Slovakia, Mali, and Malawi—the U.S. has yet to have a female head of state.

WEF’s projection also reflects the grim reality that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation where maternal mortality rates are actually getting worse. The risks are especially high for African American women, who are three to four times more likely to die during or after delivery than white women.

208 is a damning, daunting number. What it’s not, however, is destiny. The projection is based on the assumption that the rate of change will remain constant. If we can accelerate the pace of progress, that number will start to go down. And therein lies our call to action.

208 is a damning daunting number. What it’s not, however, is destiny.

I know from experience that a startling statistic can be an animating force. In 1996, Bill and I learned from a New York Times article that in developing countries, hundreds of thousands of children were dying of diarrhea each year. Bill and I had already decided that we wanted to give the majority of the wealth from Microsoft away, but until that article, we weren’t sure how. That datapoint gave us direction and ultimately led us to start our foundation.

As it turned out, we were far from alone in wanting to do something about the unconscionable number of children dying preventable deaths. Our foundation was quickly connected to a wide range of partners eager to play a role in driving progress. Together, we created a new organization—Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance—which has spurred a 40 percent decrease in the number of children in low-and-middle-income nations who die before their fifth birthday.

Women are 51% of the U.S. population, but hold only 24% of seats in Congress.

Once again, we find ourselves facing an urgent challenge that calls for new investment and collaboration. Shrinking the number 208 is going to require many people across many sectors. But I believe progress is possible, and as a philanthropist, I’m particularly interested in the role that philanthropy can play in accelerating it.

While comprehensive data on U.S. philanthropy is hard to find, there’s evidence that gender equality in the U.S. has been chronically underfunded. Preliminary research suggests that for every $1 spent on gender equality by private donors, there are $9.27 spent on higher education, and $4.85 spent on the arts. What’s more, 90 percent of the money that is going toward women’s issues is going toward women’s reproductive health specifically. If we want to make gender equality a priority, we need to be spending more—and spreading those resources more broadly.

In addition to writing checks, philanthropists can play a critical role in driving progress by creating new platforms to bring people together. As we saw with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, it’s essential to have a mechanism for getting a diverse range of stakeholders around the same table.

When it comes to the fight for gender equality, one of the most important assets we have is the huge array of people who are already activated—from the thousands of organizations that have been working on these issues for years to the more than 4 million women who joined women’s marches across 600 cities. That’s why I think there’s a lot of potential in new efforts to channel existing energies and expertise more effectively into one broad-based assault on systemic inequality. My company, Pivotal Ventures, recently invested in two of these efforts—Time’s Up and The Collaborative Fund for Women’s Safety and Dignity—both of which are creating new partnerships to tackle harassment, discrimination and inequality at scale.

The gender gaps in our country are real, and they aren’t going away on their own—at least, not any time in the next 200 years. If we want to see them close in our lifetimes, we will need to come together to insist in one voice that equality can’t wait. Two decades ago, a statistic in a newspaper called me to action. I hope the statistic WEF published this week does the same for others. If we commit to being part of the solution, the number 208 is ours to reject.

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