Relentless pursuit of an equitable world

The Optimist

Gender illustration

Embedding the “streetlight moments” in our mission

One of my colleagues at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation occasionally has what she calls “streetlight moments.”

Early in her career as an economist, Anja Langenbucher, our Europe office director, joined a team working to rebuild post-war Kosovo. While the team was pleased with their plans, the lone gender expert was not. “The streetlights” she kept saying, “are too far apart.”

While the dark spaces between the streetlights illuminated an economical approach to city planning, only the gender expert recognized that they would make the streets more dangerous—especially for women.

Thanks to her smart advocacy, the streetlights in Kosovo were positioned closer together. And the experience made Anja more sympathetic to what happens when the needs of half of the population are ignored by those holding decision-making power.

The history of development is littered with “streetlight moments”—well-intentioned programs that miss the mark because they fail to consider how people of different genders face different norms, opportunities, and barriers.

It is a lesson we’ve learned the hard way at the Gates Foundation, with some notable missteps over the years. We’ve also seen how other organizations, including some of our partners, are prioritizing gender dynamics in their work to great effect.

Only when we understand how gender inequality plays into poverty, hunger, disease, and every other issue we take on in global health and development—and only when we use that knowledge to intervene in the right ways—will we make more of an impact, more quickly, and in a more inclusive way.

That’s why our foundation is beginning to embed “streetlight moments” into the way we do business by working to apply a gender lens to our global programs and strategies.

For shorthand, we call this “gender integration.” Admittedly, it’s a rather wonky term, but it captures a simple principle. In everything we do—from how we define problems, to how we design solutions, to how we determine success—we will put gender right at the very heart.

Gender integration is a major shift in the way we work, and changes the way we think about impact. From now on, not only should an investment adequately meet the challenge it’s designed to address, it should also ensure that everyone is included in the benefits.

Mark Suzman


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

This approach goes hand-in-hand with the creation earlier this year of our first Gender Equality global division. This puts gender equality on a par with our other global divisions, including Global Health and Global Development, as we work to accelerate progress for women and girls, which is core to all outcomes embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Establishing this division is also tied to changes to our hiring practices, personnel policies, and codes of conduct led by our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team, which is also looking at other systemic inequalities, especially race.

Taken together, it means that today, gender equality is not just part of our agenda, it is our agenda.

COVID-19 has made it more important and more urgent than ever. As the world responds to the pandemic, recovers from the impact, and rebuilds economies and societies in the aftermath, considering gender dynamics is crucial.

For example, early data suggests that the disease is claiming the lives of men at a higher rate than women, though we don’t yet know why. But that headline does not tell the whole story. What we know from previous epidemics and from early information about this pandemic is that the fallout from COVID-19 threatens almost every aspect of women’s lives and livelihoods.

Women and girls are losing access to vital sexual and reproductive health services as countries redirect resources to COVID-19. Violence against women and girls—particularly domestic violence—has intensified as a result of stay-at-home orders. The crisis is exacerbating the unpaid care burden on women, while they are more vulnerable to losing their jobs since more of them work in industries worst-affected by the pandemic. Girls are also at greater risk than boys of not returning to education once schools reopen.

These are what you might call COVID-19’s “streetlight moments”, where gender factors are not immediately obvious, yet critical. And they are why gender equality is at the core of a better response, a stronger recovery, and an effective rebuild that leads to a more resilient future.

Melinda Gates sets out some of the ways this can be achieved in a comprehensive policy paper published this week in Foreign Affairs. For example, governments can ensure emergency cash transfers to citizens are designed specifically to further women’s economic empowerment.

Viewing the decisions we take, and investments we make, through a gender lens prevents them from unintentionally and inadvertently increasing gender gaps. Even better, adopting a gender lens amplifies impact by expanding opportunities and equality at the same time.

That’s not to say that we look at gender in isolation. It is just as important to understand and respond to the fact that other systemic inequalities, including racism, class, and poverty, have a profound effect on women and girls.

Undoubtedly, it has taken us more time to get here than it should have, but this is not an overnight conversion for the Gates Foundation. It’s a journey that can be traced back several years, as first we laid the groundwork for gender integration, and then gradually built momentum.

Today, our new Gender Equality division includes a team that will support colleagues as they apply a gender lens to their programmatic work. As part of that, the team has developed specialized online training and customized tools to equip leaders and grant-makers with the skills, knowledge, and support they need to consider gender equality in their strategies and investments.

Gender integration is a major shift in the way we work and changes the way we think about impact. From now on, not only should an investment adequately meet the challenge it’s designed to address, it should also ensure that everyone is included in the benefits.

That can’t come soon enough. At current rates, it will take nearly a century for the world to reach gender parity and COVID-19 risks setting back that timeline even further.

The pandemic has, however, provided an unexpected opportunity to radically accelerate progress. Seizing it demands us to be deliberate about tackling the systemic and structural sexism which has shaped our world so profoundly that today there is no place on Earth where women and men are treated equally.

In all the talk of “getting back to normal,” it’s worth remembering that for too many communities “normal” is when the streetlights are placed too far apart. Equality can’t wait. This must be the moment of action. This is a chance to build back better.


About the Author

Mark Suzman
Mark Suzman, the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, leads the foundation's efforts to promote equity for all people around the world.

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