When Melinda Gates turned 50, she decided to dedicate the rest of her life to empowering women and girls — and fighting to advance opportunities for them.
At that point, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charity, had been traveling the world for over 15 years. The foundation, which mainly focuses on eradicating extreme poverty and addressing global health problems, already had a long list of ambitious items to tackle, including combating malaria.
But Gates wanted to do more.
“I would see so many missed opportunities for women. So many places where women weren’t empowered,” Gates told Poppy Harlow at CNNMoney’s American Opportunity breakfast in New York on Tuesday.
Three years later, Gates is a top advocate for women around the world. She also isn’t shying away from the issues that affect women back home, like encouraging women to go into STEM fields and advocating for paid family leave.
One of her rallying cries? “Poverty is sexist.”
More women around the globe — and in the U.S. — are in poverty than men, she noted. Part of the reason: “Women do more unpaid labor — the hidden tasks at home that we don’t talk about,” Gates said. “Helping with homework. Getting the lunchbox. Making sure the kid has the soccer cleats ready to go for the next day.”
That all adds up to several hours of unpaid work each day, she said.
Overall, the amount of unpaid work women do is roughly equivalent to the entire gross domestic product of China, Gates said, citing a McKinsey study.
“We need to recognize [unpaid work] and do things to reduce it and, quite frankly, redistribute it in our households,” she said.
That’s what happened in her house, said Gates, who is the mother of two girls and one boy. Her husband, Bill, drove their youngest daughter to kindergarten twice a week while he was CEO of Microsoft. About two weeks in, Gates said the other moms told her they were going to talk to their spouses about doing the same.
Gates also believes men and women need to come together to advocate for paid family leave, which can be used to care for a newborn baby or sick parents.
“We value our families — so let’s economically value them,” she said.
While Gates declined to endorse the FAMILY Act, legislation introduced by senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York that promises up to 12 weeks of paid time off for any worker — male or female — that has a new child or a family member suffering from an illness, Gates said she has asked members of Congress to take action on the issue.
“It’s in the hands of Congress to do something,” Gates said. “And I hope that they will.”
Gates said she’s had numerous conversations about paid family leave with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and one of his top advisers. In recent months, Trump has been a top advocate for paid family leave within the administration, and she has encouraged her father to include it in his budget.
“I think she is trying to carry the water on this. How far she gets remains to be seen,” Gates said.
Gates called Ivanka Trump “very bright” and “very committed” to making paid family leave a reality.
Still, Gates said she’s not sure if it will happen during Donald Trump’s presidency.
“There are a lot of surprising things going on in this administration,” she said. “It’s really hard to predict.”
Gates noted that the Trump administration’s budget “put zero dollars for family planning.”
“He took a budget of over $600 million and his budget says zero. So that tells me what he thinks about women,” she said.
Gates said that the number one thing the Trump administration can do to advance women’s causes is to “put money behind them.”
“If you believe in women, you fund things for women — you fund family planning, you fund women’s health,” she said. “The power is in the money.”
Gates said it’s also important for young girls and women to challenge themselves and “lean into the suck” — a twist on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In mantra.
“When they are uncomfortable, [I tell them to] lean into that. Don’t just feel like you can’t quite do it,” she said. “You can’t quite go to that social event, [or] you can’t quite learn biology, because maybe you are more of an English person. Yes you can!”
Another tip? Don’t be afraid to stop your colleagues when they are just repeating a point you’ve already made. Gates says she does it to her husband all the time (and he dishes it back, too).
“If a man is re-explaining — or ‘mansplaining’ — something a woman has done, stop them in the meeting, and say, ‘That’s okay, she already said that. Let’s move on,'” she said.