At a glance
In the foundation’s work to reduce inequity, it has become clear that the undervaluing of women and girls is at the root of every problem we are working to solve.
That is why we weave gender equality into the fabric of our organization and invest in removing the barriers that keep women and girls from being fully active in their homes, communities, and societies.
Our approach starts with enhancing women’s opportunities to participate in the economy and improving the collection and use of data on gender issues so women and girls are counted and considered in policymaking.
With an emphasis on reaching low-income women and girls in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, we support the work of partners to break down structural barriers to women’s equality and help individual women overcome existing, day-to-day barriers.
Our work to close the gender gap falls into three broad areas, with an emphasis on reaching low-income women and girls in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, including Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda. These countries are among the largest economies in their regions and are home to promising efforts focused on women’s empowerment.
First, we support the work of partners to break down structural barriers that women and girls face simply because of their gender. Second, we focus on lifting up individual women by backing projects and programs that help them overcome existing, day-to-day barriers. And finally, we weave gender equality into the fabric of our organization through our gender integration approach.
Along the way, we seek to advance women’s economic empowerment by improving the collection and use of data on gender issues so women and girls can be counted and considered in policymaking. With the right data, we can work with partners—from local nonprofits to in-country researchers, gender-focused coalitions, and governments—to develop and fund interventions that measurably improve the lives of women and girls. We also support crucial grassroots, national, and global advocacy and communications to make the case for gender equality as a strategic priority that will benefit everyone.
Gender Equality Toolbox
Our Gender Equality Toolbox is made up of tools that can guide foundation staff and partners in designing, managing, and measuring the results and impact of gender-intentional and gender-transformative programs and investments.
Areas of focus
Women can successfully participate in and benefit from the economy only when governments and institutions provide them with opportunities to gain employment, access services and support, and earn fair compensation for their work. We aim to understand the structural barriers women face—such as lack of affordable child care, educational opportunities, and access to bank accounts and credit—and support proven methods to break down those barriers.
Working with partners, we collect and analyze data, design and test policies, and support governments in implementing reforms that ensure greater gender equality and lead to higher-paying employment opportunities for women and girls. For example, policies that allow working from home or nontraditional schedules can greatly enhance women’s ability to participate in the workforce and earn a decent wage. In the Indian state of Bihar, for example, we partnered with the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy to create the country’s first district-level gender dashboard, which gives the government vital data for identifying areas where improvement is needed—such as women’s safety and access to jobs—to reduce women’s barriers to economic empowerment. We are supporting the development of similar tools in Kenya and Ethiopia.
When women and girls are expected to remain in the home, perform all domestic work, and defer to parents, male relatives, and husbands on important decisions, they cannot participate freely in the economy or fulfill their aspirations. Women are also disproportionately affected by intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation, and forced labor, which further challenge their mental and emotional well-being and limit their participation in the broader society.
But history has shown that even the most deeply entrenched gender norms can be changed—and that when they are, economic opportunities for women and their families grow. We work to understand the role of these norms, and we design and test policies and programs that strengthen the agency of women and girls so they can earn money, benefit economically, and have the power to make decisions about their incomes and lives. In Uganda, for example, we’re building on group interventions that are already socially acceptable, such as women’s savings groups, to create more broad-based women’s collectives whose members are empowered to organize, use their voices, and advocate for change.
We also support programs aimed at increasing women's earning power and ability to control their own incomes. Women farmers comprise about half of the agricultural labor force in low-income countries, but they struggle to earn a fair income. Our partners help them connect with markets, increase their earnings, and make financial decisions. We also test and evaluate the most effective ways to expand women’s financial inclusion so they have access to the tools and services they need to manage their money. In partnership with governments in eight countries, we seek to ensure that more women receive digitized social payments deposited directly into their own bank accounts.
While working to enhance women’s economic empowerment, we are also carefully considering how gender equality plays into all of the issues the foundation works on, including poverty, hunger, and health. And we have to use that knowledge to intervene in the right ways. By considering how people of different genders face different norms, opportunities, and barriers, we can have a greater impact through our grants and programs while avoiding unintentionally favoring certain people and further disadvantaging others.
Core to this approach is ensuring that our foundation’s global work is conducted through a gender lens, from our strategies to our programs, advocacy efforts, and research. We are training the foundation’s entire global staff in best practices for gender integration, including lessons learned from partners. Staff members in grantmaking roles receive additional training, including in how to use our custom Investment Marker tool. This helps them ask the right questions when they consider investments, such as “How do women and girls experience the problem differently?” and “Are any gender-based policies or customs in play?”
For example, pilot programs to improve sanitation by providing public toilets must be designed to take into account the unique needs of women, who are vulnerable to spying or even violence if the toilets have stalls with doors that don’t lock, poor lighting, or open windows for ventilation. If women don’t feel safe, the toilets may end up being used predominantly by men, which limits the impact of the program overall and marginalizes women and girls.
As the foundation’s programs develop or refresh their core strategies, our gender integration team works with the program leaders and teams to ensure that they apply a gender lens to their work. Even programs that focus specifically on women and girls, such as maternal health initiatives, undergo continuous, rigorous examination based on gender-related factors. We are developing clear gender-related metrics and targets to ensure that everyone at the foundation holds themselves accountable for success, and we provide ongoing assistance to our partners so they have the resources they need to make their own work more gender aware.
Without concerted action, gender inequality will continue to persist throughout our lifetimes and into future generations. With the deadline for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals drawing near, it is increasingly critical that we consider how gender plays into every issue we touch. The formation of the Gender Equality team in 2020 has put gender equality on par with all of the foundation’s other global programs, ensuring that gender equality is not just part of our collective agenda—it is our agenda, as we work toward a world where equal is greater.
COVID-19 is gender-blind, but not gender-neutral. For 20 years, poverty levels among women had been falling. Today, those levels are rising rapidly. This virus exposed how fragile and surface-level the economic gains for women have been in many countries. We’re working to understand how and why women are more vulnerable to the economic shocks of this pandemic.
To respond to this global recession that affecting women’s livelihoods most drastically, gender has to be central in recovery plans. We are working with civil society, academia, countries, and international financing institutions to make sure the economic recovery helps undue gender inequality instead of reinforcing it. Countries that get this right will recover faster and be more resilient to future crises. If they do not, economies will recover more slowly, and the recovery will be built on top of the same social cracks and economic fault lines as before.
Equality cannot wait until this crisis has passed. Later this year, world leaders will have the opportunity to match the urgency of this moment and make real commitments to accelerate progress at the Generation Equality Forum.
Evidence Review and Policy Brief Series
To advance understanding of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the economy and identify evidence-based solutions, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation collaborated with grantees and partners to produce a series of evidence reviews to describe key issues driving the economic crisis facing women and girls and highlight policy responses to create a gender-responsive recovery.
This series synthesizes evidence, provides analysis, highlights exemplars, and provides policy recommendations on key areas of policy around gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. These documents are useful resources for civil society, gender equality advocates, and policy actors.
- Strengthening gender measures and data in the COVID-19 era: An urgent need for change
- Global child care crisis and the road to post-COVID-19 recovery and resilience
- Women's groups and COVID-19: Impacts, challenges, and policy implications for savings groups in Africa
Check back for more in the series. Upcoming topics will include informal work, small and medium enterprises, and women’s empowerment collectives in India.
Why focus on gender equality?
Too often, people living in low-income communities have fewer opportunities and less power to improve their lives than those in higher-income communities. This inequality is magnified for women and girls, many of whom have little say in the decisions that affect their lives, their families, and their communities. Structural barriers such as discriminatory laws and restrictive policies limit their participation in the economy and their earning power. Harmful social norms and expectations further deny them control over their own lives, including their education, health, marital and reproductive choices, employment, and family financial decisions.
Evidence from dozens of emerging economies shows that when money flows into the hands of women, and when those women have the power to decide how and when to spend it, their lives and the lives of their families are better. One study found that the global economy would grow by an estimated $28 trillion by the year 2025 if women were to participate in the economy to the same degree as men.1 If the world can unleash that power for 3 billion women and girls, we will begin to untangle some of the most persistent roots of poverty.
To build solutions that benefit women and girls, we also need better data. Gender inequality defies clear-cut solutions, in part because we don’t always have information about what works. Sometimes we lack evidence entirely. By improving the collection and use of data on gender issues, we can bolster our efforts to reduce women’s barriers to equality and economic empowerment.
Finally, as a foundation we consider it critical to consider how gender plays into all our work. In countries and communities around the world, gender affects whether and how individuals can access resources and how much control they have over them. If we do not take gender differences into account, our efforts will miss the people who would benefit the most.
1McKinsey & Company (2015). The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth.
When we set out to develop our strategy, we started with a single question: How do countries tend to progress toward women’s economic empowerment? This website outlines how we arrived at our perspective on what’s needed to increase women’s economic empowerment throughout the world.
A focus on empowerment requires a shift away from seeing women and girls as beneficiaries of health and development programs to viewing them as agents of change for their own individual and collective empowerment. This model is a tool that can help identify the multifaceted barriers that women and girls face in their journey toward empowerment.