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Melinda Gates: "Think About the World and How You Can Effect Change"

By Cindi Leive

In 2013, Glamour honored philanthropist Melinda Gates as a Woman of the Year for her efforts to eradicate the world's biggest problems — from poverty to hunger to birth control accessibility — through her leadership at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This year, to help us commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Women of the Year, she talked to Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive about what women have accomplished in the last 25 years — and what she hopes happens in the next 25. 

Cindi Leive: If you had to write a headline about where women have come over the last 25 years, what would it say?
Melinda Gates: "Amazing Progress and Also Still Some Gaps." We've made huge progress in life expectancy for women — we've gotten family planning and women and girls onto the global health agenda. And women are starting to get leadership roles — but not in the great numbers that we need. Having women in those roles makes a difference because women think about the issues differently than men.

CL: Since 2012 your focus within the foundation has really been on contraception. You've said this issue is a matter of life and death. Why are these issues as compelling as your work on vaccines?
MG: Because when you sit down and talk to women in the developing world, they will tell you it's life and death. What they'll say to you is, "I already have five children. I can hardly feed them. How could I have another child?" And so it is a matter of life and death. And when you think of 200 million women saying to us, "I would like to have access to the basic tool you have in the United States — why can't I?" it was clear that something needed to be done.

CL: Why is it that [birth control] technology hasn't improved more? I mean, Glamour readers are essentially using the same methods that their mothers were.
MG: The U.S. didn't invest in research and development… Many women in the developing world, particularly in Africa, use a shot that they get every three months. But they have to go to a health clinic — sometimes [the shot is] in stock, sometimes it's not. So one of the things the foundation is investing in is a small blister-pack shot [that's easy to transport and use]. Eventually we want to give it to the women so they can give it to themselves.

CL: You've said that on one of your early trips to Africa, you were looking at the men and seeing that they were wearing flip-flops and smoking — and the women were barefoot.
MG: And the women were either with a small child or pregnant and carrying something huge on their heads to the market. The disparity was enormous! And once, in a Maasai village, I was invited to a ceremony where they were doing a genital cutting of a young girl. They were proud; it was an honor that they were inviting us. And I thought, I don't understand what's going on here for women and girls — I have a lot to learn to ever understand why that would be an honor.

CL: Your husband was on CNBC earlier this year talking about a project to develop a better condom. What needs to be improved in the condom area?
MG: People don't use condoms because they don't like the smell or how they feel. I don't think anybody's gone all the way back to the drawing board to say, "OK, what if you were starting over, how would you invent it?" We haven't invested in a new condom in many years. If we could have one that was easier to put on and had more feel to it and less of a smell, I think people would use it.

CL: I want to ask you about your own personal journey. As a working woman in the early nineties, where did you think you would be in 25 years?
MG: I always loved tech and I loved business, but I also always wanted to be a mom. So I thought I would be a working career mom. But I never imagined that I could come back and learn a whole different field — and that the lessons I learned about innovation and business would apply to what I'm doing now. I hope till the day I die I will be on this learning journey. I never feel like I can know enough about the issues we're trying to tackle — that's both frightening some days and also really exhilarating. Bill said to me on my fiftieth birthday, "You're learning a whole new field! How many women do you know who are doing that?" To have that kind of wind at your back is a really nice thing.

CL: I think a lot of women look at a marriage like yours with admiration. How did you know Bill was a good egg?
MG: The world saw this big technology person, but I saw the heart in him. He had a lot of respect for what I was doing, and he listened well. And he had a mother who was on many boards; he thought that was fantastic and liked to talk about her work. So I knew he respected women in business quite a bit.

CL: So many young women are living a public life all the time. You took time off to be with your children when they were really young. Why did you decide to keep your head down and be private, and what did you get out of that?
MG: I felt like if they were going to grow up to be who they were meant to be, they needed to have privacy. I used my maiden name when I enrolled them in school so we would get those first few weeks that people wouldn't know we were related to Bill. That just allowed them to be part of the community first. I'm still a very private person; I think sometimes getting off social media or not reading the news all the time — you need that private and quiet time for introspection. Bill and I still take vacations where we are completely and totally out of the mainstream. It gives us time to reflect and to think about things more broadly.

CL: You have a son, and also two daughters — what are your hopes for your daughters as women? Where do you hope they will go in their lives over the next 25 years?
MG: I just want them to know they can be full participating members in society. I talk with my son about this too. We talk about, "OK, if you have a spouse one day, how would you support them? How would you think about the equality in the relationship?" I try to role model that for my kids. My youngest daughter, who's 13, sometimes says, "You know, I could be the president of the United States some day." And I say, "Yes, I know you could if you wanted to." I think just girls' knowing that [is powerful].

CL: Though it might be too late for her to be the first female president.
MG: It might be, but that would be okay too.

CL: Any other messages for the young woman who's reading this as she maps out her life over the next 25 years?
MG: I think it's a myth to think that we can map out our lives and know exactly where we're going. I think having some goals, for sure, but leave yourself open to opportunities. As a young woman, you're going to meet people who are going to change the trajectory of your life. If you have older mentors, there's some wisdom that just comes with time... So I would say, get involved in the world, think about the world and how you can effect change. So often people look at a woman who's on top and say, "Oh my gosh, she's doing it in a big way." But no, it's little acts of change — volunteering two hours of your time or connecting with somebody in the developing world or in your home city of New York or Toledo. All those small acts of change add up to very large things.

CL: And looking forward, 25 years from now, what do you hope the headline will be?
MG: "Women Around the World Have Been Empowered to Do What They Want — for Themselves and Their Families."

Watch Gates' exclusive MAKERS story in the video above.

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Photo Credit: Paul Zimmerman via Getty Images