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Melinda Gates on her foundation’s work and the need to ‘lift up women’ worldwide

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the world's largest private philanthropic organization, with an endowment of $50 billion. Melinda Gates plays a huge role in shaping its work, and her new book, "The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World," chronicles some of the inspiring men and women she has met through it. Judy Woodruff talks to Gates about politics and equality.

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  • William Brangham:

    The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private philanthropic foundation in the world. It has an endowment of $50 billion. Its reach has been global, focusing on issues like malaria, reproductive health, family planning and education.

    Melinda Gates plays a huge role in shaping the organization's focus.

    Judy Woodruff spoke with her recently about her new book, which looks at what she's learned in that job and her own personal story.

    It's our latest installment of the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Melinda Gates, welcome.

    The book is "The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World."

    Thank you for joining us.

  • Melinda Gates:

    How Empowering Women Changes the World": Thanks for having me, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, this is your first book. And you weave in your own story with your experiences with women, mostly very, very poor women you have met around the developing world. What did you want to accomplish with this?

  • Melinda Gates:

    Well, I have been meeting men and women around the world now for 20 years in the foundation's work, and so many women have shared the stories of their lives with me.

    And they have really called me to action. And by sharing their story and a bit about my personal journey, I hope to call other people to action for empowering women around the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You plunged, in the early 1980s, into a very male career, dominated career, in computer science and then through the Gates Foundation, after you had children.

    And you write about how it took you a while to find your voice as a woman, to advocate for women.

  • Melinda Gates:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why was that? Why did it take as long as it did, do you think?

  • Melinda Gates:

    Yes, I think because there's so many things society tells us as women that what we should do, or we should say, or ways we should be.

    And I was so lucky to grow up with two parents who said to both the two daughters in the family, one of which was me, and the two sons, you can be anything you want to be. We could see, as a middle-class family, it was going to be hard to send us a college, but we could.

    And I think having a dad who believed in girls in the sciences really helped me see that I could be anything I wanted to be. And so, even when I would come up against these barriers in society that women face, I knew that my job was to try and break through those.

    And in the foundation's work, I didn't originally start with women's issues, because I thought those were the soft issues. And I was completely wrong. If we lift up women, they lift up everybody else.

    But our systems don't always reach women. And there are lots of barriers that hold women down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that took a while to understand?

  • Melinda Gates:

    It took a while to understand and to learn.

    And, partly, I was hearing it for women all over the world, when I'd be out in the developing world talking to women, many different countries in Africa. But I would come back and look at the data. And I always thought data was objective. But data is actually sexist.

    We don't actually collect a lot of data about women around the world. So we don't actually know that much about their lives. They would often say to me, what about — what about in this little tiny health clinic where I get vaccines for my kids? Why can't I get birth control anymore? Why could I get a contraceptive before, and now I can't?

    And they started to tell me that this was a life-and-death emergency for their family. And the data actually was very thin about what was going on. But it turned out what the women were telling me was true. This was a life-and-death emergency in the developing world, and is — 200 million women want contraceptives, and we don't supply them, as a world, yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And speaking of contraceptives and birth control, you are open in the book about your differences with the Catholic Church on these issues, abortion as well.

  • Melinda Gates:

    Mm-hmm.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You even take on the church when it comes to leadership roles for women as priests.

    Do you see any movement in the Catholic Church on these issues?

  • Melinda Gates:

    What I know is that when women have access to contraceptives, they time and space the births of their children.

    And we know, from the longest piece of longitudinal research in global health, that those families are healthier, the moms, the babies, the families are better educated, the kids are, and the families are wealthier.

    And my faith says to me that we believe in loving my neighbor. And so I have stood up and said what I believe, even with the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, because of HIV/AIDS, has allowed condoms to be distributed in the developing world.

    But I have met so many women who have told me: I can't negotiate a condom in the context of my relationship with my husband, because I'm either suggesting he's been unfaithful and has AIDS or I have been unfaithful.

    And so women have to have the types of tools we have here in the United States, or the primary tool they want in Africa, which has been in the past delivered and still is in some places, is a shot, which is covert from their husbands.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Has that debate shaken your faith, your personal faith?

  • Melinda Gates:

    I have had to wrestle with my faith, and — before I came out publicly in favor of contraceptives.

    But when I realized that it's because of political pressure in our own country and religious belief that we're letting women die in childbirth, we're letting babies die because a woman has them too soon and too often, my faith tells me that I love these people.

    And I know I have gotten some beautiful things from the Catholic Church, my roots in social justice. But this is a piece I disagree with the church on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You don't name President Trump in the book. You speak about our president, our current administration.

    As you know, this administration is pushing very hard against abortion rights, to limit abortion, make it as restrictive as possible. The question is, why not go farther and call it what it is? Why not name the Trump administration?

  • Melinda Gates:

    Well, I have said that I disagree vehemently with the values being put forward by this administration. So I'm not sure what — how much stronger I could be. I'm not running for public office.

    But I disagree. And I disagree in public, and I disagree in private. And our foundation has worked incredibly well with the Bush administration, the Obama administration, Congress in this administration.

    I don't name this administration in my book because I want it to be a timeless book. I don't name President Bush or former President Obama either. So what I look for are the places where I can move issues forward. And I work with people who are like-minded.

    Luckily, Congress has held up the foreign aid budget because they know it creates a peaceful and prosperous world and societies all over the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing I want to ask you about that you write about is your own effort inside your own marriage to find your own voice, to gain self-confidence.

    And you talk about how you wrestle with whether to even share this publicly.

  • Melinda Gates:

    What is true is that Bill and I always believed in equality. We wanted equality.

    And what I write about in the book is, I didn't even realize that when I came into marriage, we came into marriage, we both came from our own biases of the past a little bit about how our households operated as kids.

    And so I surprised Bill when I — we got pregnant with our first child, Jen. I surprised him and said, I'm going to leave Microsoft. I said, I'm going to leave and raise our kids. And Bill was actually the one who said to me, after Jen was six months old, "What else are you going to do?"

    Because he knew I had that part of my brain that I also love to work. But, yes, those conversations aren't always easy. But we — I bring them up because we need to have those in our home to make sure that we have equality and to look at what assumptions have we made, and do we need to shift those, as we have kids or things change or we get older or our careers change?

    And what I want women to know is, you can have full equality, and you should, in your home, in your workplace and in your community. And when you do that, it changes the world. Equality makes a huge difference.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Melinda Gates.

    The book is "The Moment of Lift."

    Thank you very much.

  • Melinda Gates:

    Thanks, Judy.

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