At a glance
We believe that the undervaluing of women and girls is at the root of every problem our foundation is working to solve.
We launched the Gender Equality Division in 2020 to focus on breaking down structural barriers to women’s equality so we can help women overcome the day-to-day obstacles they face.
By creating a dedicated team, we pulled together two decades of work to empower women and girls, placing gender equality on par with our other global divisions and ensuring a seat at the executive leadership table.
The Gender Equality Division’s strategy has accelerated the foundation’s gender-related work, strengthened its position in areas of impact, and expanded grantmaking in sectors such as science and technology for women’s equality.
The latest updates on gender equality
The Gender Equality Division works to ensure that gender equality is incorporated across the foundation’s work. Our initiatives include women’s economic empowerment, women’s leadership, data and evidence, and innovation in science and technology to improve women’s health.
Our focus is 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 represent some of the largest economies in their regions and have demonstrated promising efforts focused on women’s empowerment.
Through our partners—from local nonprofits to in-country researchers, gender-focused coalitions, and governments—we work to break down structural barriers to equality for women and girls and challenge the social norms that disadvantage them. We also work to improve the lives of individual women by backing projects and programs that help them overcome day-to-day obstacles. Our efforts include:
- Addressing women’s vulnerabilities in areas such as health, nutrition, and sanitation
- Increasing self-determination for women through initiatives that focus on digital connectivity and adoption, skills development, and economic empowerment
- Expanding leadership opportunities for women
- Influencing norms and reducing barriers to promote women’s full participation in society
We use data to measure and improve the impact of interventions for women and girls, enabling our partners to develop and fund projects that make a difference.
We also support grassroots, national, and global advocacy and communications efforts to make the case for gender equality as a strategic priority that will benefit everyone.
The launch of the standalone Gender Equality Division in 2020 has furthered the foundation’s commitment to gender equality outcomes across the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and builds on two decades of increasing investment in gender equality:
- In 2012 at the London Summit on Family Planning, our foundation pledged US$560 million for family planning to save lives and improve the well-being of mothers and children.
- In 2014, we began integrating gender across the foundation’s work and initiated targeted financing to advance gender equality.
- In 2016, we announced a US$80 million investment to close gaps in data on gender issues to better measure and accelerate progress for women around the world.
- In 2017, we made a US$20 million investment in women’s movements.
- In 2018, with the launch of our first strategy on gender equality, we committed US$170 million toward women’s economic empowerment and staffed the program with a dedicated team.
In 2021, at the Generation Equality Forum, Melinda French Gates announced a five-year, US$650 million investment to further the economic empowerment of women. This investment backs the three-pronged “cash, care, and data” framework developed by the Center for Global Development.
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. This dashboard gives the government access to vital data to identify areas where improvement is needed—such as women’s safety and access to jobs—to reduce barriers to women’s 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 physical, mental, and emotional well-being and limit their participation in the broader society.
But history has shown that even the most deeply entrenched gender biases can be changed—and that when they are, economic opportunities for women and their families grow. We work to understand these biases, and we design and test policies and programs that strengthen women and girls’ agency so they can earn more money, benefit from economic gains, 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 income. 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 can 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.
We work in close partnership with teams across the foundation to elevate gender in all of their work—from strategies to programs, advocacy efforts, and research—given that people of different genders face different norms, opportunities, and barriers. By doing so, we can ensure greater impact through our grants and programs while avoiding unintentionally favoring certain people and further disadvantaging others.
We are training the foundation’s 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, which helps them ask the right questions as 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 account for 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 Sustainable Development Goals drawing near, we must consider how gender plays into every issue the foundation touches. The Gender Equality Division ensures 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. Before the pandemic, poverty levels among women fell continuously for 20 years. Those levels are now rising rapidly. The virus exposed how fragile and superficial 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 the global COVID-19 recession, which has affected women’s livelihoods most drastically, recovery plans must put women and girls at the center. We are working with civil society organizations, academia, national governments, and international financing institutions to ensure that economic recovery efforts prioritize gender equality rather than reinforcing old inequalities. Countries that get this right will recover faster and be more resilient to future crises. If they do not, their 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.
Evidence review and policy summary series
To advance understanding of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the economy and identify evidence-based solutions, our foundation has collaborated with grantees and partners to produce a series of evidence reviews that highlight key issues in the economic crisis facing women and girls.
These documents synthesize evidence, provide analysis, highlight exemplars, and offer policy recommendations to create a more gender-responsive recovery. They are useful resources for civil society organizations, gender equality advocates, and policy actors.
- Strengthening gender measures and data in the COVID-19 era: An urgent need for change
- The 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
- COVID-19 and women’s informal employment: A call to support the most vulnerable first in the economic recovery
- Women-led small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) before, during, and after COVID-19: Examining barriers and opportunities
Check back for more documents in the series. Upcoming topics will include small and medium-size enterprises and women’s groups 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. 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 US$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 efforts to reduce barriers to women’s equality and economic empowerment.
Finally, as a foundation we consider it critical to consider how gender plays into all of 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 Gender Equality 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. The foundation’s model of women and girls’ empowerment can serve as a tool for identifying the multifaceted barriers that women and girls face.