The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is Zooming in on Women’s Global Economic Empowerment

When looking at the towering list of problems the world faces, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation often finds themselves asking: What is the best way to create real and sustainable change?

This summer, the data driven NGO, now in its eighteenth year, decided that the answer is taking a targeted approach. They are listening to experts and putting women and girls at the forefront of the foundation’s next chapter with their first-ever Gender Strategy—committing 170 million dollars to programming in Kenya, India, Uganda and Tanzania advancing women’s economic empowerment. The initiative focuses on digital bank accounts, savings, self-help groups and workplace agricultural sector opportunities.

Ms. caught up with Sarah Hendriks, Gender Equality Director, to discuss the value of zooming in and how true financial independence allows women to move themselves and their communities forward.

Photo courtesy of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

What went into the process of designing the Gates Foundation’s new Gender Strategy?

This is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s first-ever strategy on gender equality, but empowering women and girls has always been at the heart of our work—through expanding access to contraceptives, improving mothers’ and their babies’ health and nutrition or ensuring that urban sanitation programs meet women’s unique needs. Unfortunately, there’s still nowhere in the world where women are equal to men.

To see progress on gender equality, it was clear that we needed a specific strategy to guide how we address the barriers that women and girls face simply because of their gender. We carefully analyzed years of research and data and looked to partners and experts around the world to guide our strategy.

Ultimately, we landed on a core fact: that a woman taking charge of her economic future is one of the most profound ways she can exercise power over her own life. This creates powerful spillover effects for a woman’s family, community and society, too. But we know that economies aren’t automatically inclusive. For example, although more people overall have access to digital financial services than ever before, women are still being left behind, especially in developing economies.

We need deliberate tactics to ensure women aren’t left fighting the current, so we are focusing on three areas for progress. First, we want to close the gender gap in digital bank accounts, to ensure more women have access to and control over their own money. Second, we are supporting a new generation of self-help groups that help women elevate their voice and build their economic power. Third, we are connecting women to new market opportunities to increase their profits and incomes, especially in agriculture markets.

Why is investing in economic empowerment essential to women’s advancement?

When we looked at developing countries that are making significant strides in women’s empowerment, we saw that economic power emerges as a consistent thread in this progress. Women’s economic empowerment is about more than just ensuring women have cash in hand. It’s about ensuring they are able to earn their own money and have the power to make decisions about if, when and how to spend it.

In fact, the research shows that when women are empowered economically, there are profound effects for her family and community that go beyond economics. Girls have increased access to education, children eat more nutritious food and fewer girls face early or forced marriage. The evidence also shows that having money and assets enhances a woman’s power and self-worth at home, and it also changes how society sees her.

What challenges are women in these countries up against?

Multiple. When economic shocks occur, it’s often women and girls who suffer first, worst and recover last, and they have less support to build resilience or buffer against economic risks.

Around the world, women face barriers that limit their participation in the economy. They don’t have access to a well-paying job, they aren’t allowed to own land and therefore are hard-pressed to sell products at markets, and they have less access to economic tools like bank accounts and other digital financial services that would allow them to control their money safely, more easily, and at less cost. Women and girls also shoulder the lion’s share of unpaid and domestic work around the world. Over the course of a woman’s life she typically does nearly seven extra years of unpaid work than a man.

All too many of us know what it’s like to make 70 cents for every dollar a man makes. Now imagine if you’re not getting any of that income. The food you’re growing and harvesting is being sold by a man, and you don’t have any savings, or even a safe place to store the money you do have, to support yourself or your kids. If we can make sure that a woman has a way to make money, save, and plan for the future, we can help her change life for herself and her children, change how she sees herself, and change how others see her too.

Why do you think women connect with the self-help format?

In the West, the term “self-help” is often synonymous with a section in the bookstore on bettering ourselves. But in developing countries, and in India in particular, self-help groups are collectives that provide a critical platform that enable women and girls to come together to improve their lives. Incredibly, more than 70 million Indian women belong to some form of self-help group.

For years, self-help groups have served as a place where women can hold regular gatherings that encourage and help them save money, build skills and share knowledge, and have long been an effective way for women to learn about their health. Most often, these groups are led by local women who have a deep understanding of the needs of women in their community, which makes them more effective at gaining the trust of, and engaging with, women in their community. One of the reasons we’re calling these “next-generation” groups is that we and our partners are using digital tools, like texting and social networking, to boost knowledge, connectivity and empowerment. We’re connecting peers through the platforms that make the most sense for them.

In 2016, I visited a self-help group in a very poor and remote area in the state of Jharkhand, India. The group is part of a program that provides training to women to help earn a livelihood, such as through agriculture, and helps women access markets to sell their products. Women may pool their resources, for example, to rent a truck and transport their products to market.

Our conversation in the group that day turned to the prevalence of “son preference” in India and other persistent norms that can have a long-lasting and harmful impact throughout women’s and girls’ lives. After the group, a woman came up to me and said, “Thank you for the conversation, but I was just wondering, in your country, is everybody equal? Are women perfectly equal to men? Because I’ve just told you all the ways they’re not here.”

At that moment, the vast differences in geography and our socioeconomic status weren’t so relevant. We were just two women from different parts of the world, standing together. I said, “Actually, where I’m from in Canada, women and men are not equal either.” Women are still paid 78 cents to the dollar in Canada, where I grew up, and still do disproportionately more unpaid care and domestic work, which means they aren’t achieving as much as they could in their jobs. And gender-based violence continues to persist.

As I told her that, it was just this powerful moment of two people connecting across boundaries and recognizing how much has been achieved in both of our settings yet how much further we have to go. She’s now getting her products to market and seeing a greater return on her work and better income into her own hands, and I’ve certainly seen women in Canada and the U.S. gaining in status over the years. Our circumstances aren’t the same, of course, but gender inequality is still persistent everywhere.

Women meet in a self-help group in Jharkhand, India. (Prashant Panjiar/Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

How will The Gates Foundation help women not only make money but maintain control of their finances?  

With our new strategy, we’re focused on closing the digital financial gap to ensure more women are in control of their own money. More and more people around the world are using digital financial services, such as mobile bank accounts, but as access grows the gap between men and women is widening, especially in emerging economies. In fact, only 65 percent of women around the world have a bank account compared to 72 percent of men. In developing countries, this gender gap grows to 9 percentage points.

We want to help close this gap. We’re working with governments to improve how social protection payments—things like nutrition stipends for breastfeeding mothers—are distributed to women through digital bank accounts, so that women have more incentive to open and use these accounts. We are ensuring funds are placed directly into an account held by women, who then have control over the account and how the funds are used, and we’re making sure that the payment systems and programs are designed to improve women’s economic empowerment by including tools like financial training or education.

We know what when more women can access and use digital products and services, they can choose how to manage their finances, pay for their children’s schooling and nutritious food, save and borrow money to bolster their futures and meet their own goals.

How has the foundation’s previous work shaped this new strategy?

One of the biggest lessons is really the biggest theme that Melinda and Bill have seen ever since they launched the foundation: that the barriers faced by women and girls are at the core of every problem the foundation is trying to solve. We can’t achieve our goals if half the world’s population is left behind.

When we were doing initial thinking on how and where to invest to accelerate progress on gender equality, we looked internally and quickly realized there was a need to apply a gender lens to existing Gates Foundation strategies and investments. To answer this need, we developed a gender mainstreaming training program to guide program teams in applying a gender lens to their strategies and the grants that they make.

For example, the Gender Equality team that I lead is working with teams who work on topics ranging from water and sanitation to vaccines by helping them think through how women and men might access tools and services differently and what their different needs and perspectives are. By putting the unique needs of women and girls at the center of designing products and services, we are seeing a much stronger and intentional effort across our programs to improve outcomes for women and girls around the world.

More recently, the foundation has invested in the collective power of women’s voices to advance gender equality. Our strategy isn’t only about economics—it’s also about harnessing women’s movements and supporting grassroots advocates around the world. Far from the spotlight, grassroots women’s groups have been forging and winning impressive campaigns for decades. They have helped unlock essential services, pass legislation and win the right to vote for millions of women. In fact, research from 70 countries over four decades shows that women’s movements were more effective at creating and sustaining policy change, particularly on violence against women, than many other factors including countries’ economic growth and political leadership.

Our investments in local women’s groups are grounded in the understanding that women and girls who are closest to the real challenges in their own communities are also the most likely to know the right solutions, and the most willing to put everything on the line to fight for them.

Another core lesson that I mentioned earlier is that data matters. For decision-making, for program design, and for getting the right policies in place to ensure that the most marginalized people have the same opportunities to live both healthy and productive lives. The problem is that even the most basic information on women and girls is often lacking: when they are born, how many hours they work, if and what they earn, whether they’ve experienced violence. In too many areas, data doesn’t exist at all, or leaves women and girls entirely out of the data collection process. As a result, women and girls are undervalued and undercounted. We’re investing to change that.

How does the organization view risk-taking in this new strategy?

As self-described “impatient optimists,” we don’t want to shy away from some of the world’s biggest, complex and most pressing challenges—including gender inequality. The problems affecting the world’s poorest people are complex, and we think that solving them requires the collaboration of governments, NGOs, academic institutions and for-profit businesses.

The role of philanthropy is not to take the place of governments in providing basic public services. Nor is it to replace the private sector or civil society. Instead, we believe that philanthropists should act as catalysts, whether by transforming markets to benefit the poor—for example, by improving women’s access to agricultural markets or increasing digital financial inclusion—or by lowering the risks associated with investments in health that have real potential to benefit the world’s poorest women and girls. 

Others might not see it as particularly risky, but I’ve found that when you put a stake in the ground on a particular issue, it can be risky. When we narrowed in on women’s economic empowerment as a pathway to progress on gender equality, we knew that we would get a lot of questions around why we focused on that particular area, when there are a whole host of challenges that women face. And yes, we’ve received criticism for not working in crucial areas, such as gender-based violence, that is faced by women and girls around the world. Let me be clear, no woman or girl should ever have to face violence in any form. While tackling gender-based violence is not a direct programmatic focus for us, we are deeply respectful of our partners that are doing incredible work to tackle violence against women and girls.

After collecting and analyzing data from almost 100 countries and speaking with grantees and experts in the field, we chose to focus on women’s economic empowerment. We took a hard look at where the role of philanthropic capital would be most impactful and chose the topic of economic empowerment as one where we feel that our foundation is best placed to make the biggest difference. Even for a foundation the size of ours, it is not possible to address all the barriers that women face and there’s a risk that if you try to, you don’t make any impact at all.

How will you measure success? 

Over the next four years, our team aims to more deeply understand the most effective ways to ensure women have the opportunity and power to lead healthy, productive lives. We define women’s economic empowerment as when a woman has access to income and economic assets, the ability to control and benefit from her economic gain and the power to make decisions over her own life.

I should add that gender data and evidence is core to the work that we do, and we are building partnerships that will help us better understand how different interventions contribute to this vision of women’s economic empowerment. We are also testing new ways to measure the more subjective, and less tangible dynamics of empowerment-like women’s self-confidence or household decision-making power.

What do I mean by gender data? Well, society typically only measures what it values, so we have no data or sexist data on the issues that disproportionately affect women and girls—such as violence against women, their access to land or unpaid work. This means that disparities and discrimination against women and girls are ignored or underestimated and women’s value to society goes unrecognized. That’s why we’re investing in partners like UN Women and national statistical offices to fill critical gender data gaps and improve the accuracy and reliability of data collection.

Success will ultimately be measured by the extent to which our overarching goals have been reached. We are looking to empower more than 63 million women in eight countries to not just open bank accounts but be able to make their own decisions about spending, saving, taking financial risks, building their own financial futures. We want to help create a new generation of self-help groups to empower women beyond India to countries in Africa with the skills and opportunities to imagine a different future and the support to take bold leaps that will transform their lives.

What are the challenges in fighting for global gender equality in these times?

I am encouraged by how much progress communities and countries around the world are making, even if it’s at a slower pace than I’d like to see. Just a decade or so ago, we were constantly having to make the case for why we should invest in gender equality. We’ve made a big shift since then. Now, we’re focused on really understanding and implementing best practices to accelerate progress on gender equality, including how to make the best investments and how to best structure programs to see long-lasting results.

Like any complex challenge, we know that there is no silver bullet to solving gender inequality. But pledges from world leaders like Justin Trudeau and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, who have demonstrated their commitment to tackling gender inequality, show that momentum is on our side. Gender equality is seen by more and more leaders not only seen as an important area in which to focus, but a critical one to focus on to help solve other global challenges, from ending hunger and malnutrition to addressing climate change. This progress is what keeps me going. While we won’t tackle all of the issues facing women and girls overnight, or even in the next couple of years, progress and momentum are on our side.


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.