dispatches from denmark

Melinda Gates Wants to Take the Gender Bias Out of Data

Melinda Gates.
Melinda Gates. Photo: Women Deliver

On Tuesday at the opening of the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, Melinda Gates announced that the foundation she co-chairs with her husband, Bill, will invest $80 million over the next three years in women and girls. Specifically, researchers will seek previously unreported data on the lives of women in the developing world. In her speech, Gates said, “We know that empowered women and girls absolutely transform societies,” so the thrust of the foundation’s investment is to reveal where women’s needs are not being met, and how the global community can better serve them. “I’m not saying that data alone is going to change women’s lives,” Gates said, but she wants the world to be held accountable on women’s rights.

Before she left Copenhagen for Berlin, Gates sat down with the Cut to talk about what she hopes to find in the data, how men can contribute to closing the many gender gaps, and what to do about it all. For more updates from the Women Deliver conference, see here.

When deciding how to allocate these funds for women, how did you decide that data was the important thing to invest in?
It is the piece that underlies everything else. If you don’t have data, you don’t know where to make good investments. So we’re going to make other investments on behalf of women and girls, I just don’t know yet where. I first have to see what the data suggests: Where could we make those investments? Where could we have a big impact?

How do you pitch data as a sexy or interesting idea? It seems like talking about it could be kind of dry.
To me, data is kind of sexy! Think of all the things in the U.S. that big data is being used for today. We’re leading a digital trail behind us everywhere we go; the analysis that’s being done on it is kind of profound. So how do we make sure that we have a cell phone in a woman’s hands so you start collecting
that kind of data as well? Because that will change things a lot. When you think about how we use data in the U.S., the ideas are pretty bold. We can also take that to the development space.

How do you determine which pieces of data we’re looking for? What are you hoping you’ll find?
Part of it is you don’t know where the data is going to lead you. We’re very evidence-based. We’re going to collect as much data as we can, and then we’ll see where that evidence takes us as to where we ought to make investments. Here’s an example: There’s good data collected by the Population Council down in South Africa. One of the things that it shows is that mobility for girls actually shrinks when they enter puberty. So they might travel ten kilometers before puberty, but as soon as puberty comes, their world shrinks down to about two kilometers. They’re not allowed outside of their circles. Whereas a boy, when he hits puberty, his mobility starts [growing]. [That’s] one piece of data that you wouldn’t even think about, that a girl’s world shrinks when she goes into puberty. Why is that, and what might you do about that? That’s just one example. We’ll see.

One of the things that we’ll have to do first, which I talked about in my speech, is un-bias some of the data. So when you go into a survey situation today they ask basically who is the head of the household and who earns the income. They never look at the woman’s assets and what she has and where she has assets. We don’t even think about how we might service her; we only think about how we might service the head of the household. That doesn’t make any sense to me.

I know what you’ve really been focusing on in that regard is time poverty. While we do have some rudimentary information about how much time is spent on domestic duties for men versus women, how do we use the information to close that gap?
First, I think you look at the data and you say, “Okay, how wide is the gap?” We have a sense of how wide that is. Then you have to pivot to the other things and say, “We recognize the problem, but what can we do to reduce it? What tools could we apply to reduce it?” And then how do you redistribute it? A washing machine at home makes a profound difference for a woman. Or even new fabrics. My mom used to iron cotton sheets, right? I don’t think anybody irons their sheets anymore (that I know of). So all of those appliances and tools that come into the home, we need to get those to women. Or even energy, so they don’t go collect firewood, they don’t carry water anymore. They have a running faucet. But there’s also a redistributing conversation that has to happen in the home, whether you’re in the United States or whether you’re in the developing world.

How do we encourage men to engage with that? How do we say, “Okay, men, you need to start picking up the slack”?
I think it depends on the home, and it depends on where you are. For instance, in the United States, one of the things we’re learning from the great data that comes out of the Nordic countries is that if the man actually interacts and takes family leave early with his infant, it changes his whole trajectory with how involved he is with that child over the course of their lifetime. It’s a healthier relationship for the dad and the son or the daughter.

One thing in the developing world is having men see that their sons or daughters will live longer because they do something for their wife, like carrying water so she can nurse the baby more. I know a family in the developing world where the man came home and the woman had her bags packed on her front doorstep. She said, “I’m going to leave,” and he said, “Well what do you mean?” They loved each other. She said, “We’ve had our first son, and there is no water here, and I’m going four hours a day to get water, and I can’t nurse our son.” So when she finally said this to him, he asked what it would take, and she said, “Well, you’d have to carry water,” and he did. Once he started carrying the water, he was made fun of by all the other men in the village because it’s a “woman’s duty,” but then they started walking with him and they all figured out, well, actually, we could all take bicycles and go get the water, and then they figured out: We could plan this as a community and we could dig water pans in our community. Men and women. So they looked at how to reduce the time; they redistributed it. That is exactly the kind of conversation you have to have.

Some discrimination can also be sort of unquantifiable. Do you think we can bridge that gap by using this data? Especially in the Western world, where we believe that men and women are equal, but they’re not.
We all have biases, wherever you are in the world, men and women — sometimes even when we think we don’t. One of the things that I like is that you can look at it as “Is it a tool you can put in place, or is it by design?” You can change the design of something. Here’s a great example: In the U.S., the SAT, as you know, has been redesigned. Girls’ scores are coming up because girls won’t take the risk that a boy will to answer a question. If they don’t know the answers, they don’t want to take the risk because there used to be points off on the SAT. Now, with the redesigned SAT, there is no penalty for guessing. [Girls] didn’t take the risk, so we had a biased test against girls. Just by redesigning the SAT, we made it equal.

So it’s all about reconfiguring the tools that we have at our disposal.
Have you heard about the Philharmonic Orchestra that they have in Philadelphia?

With the blind auditions, right?
It wasn’t just putting the curtain down and doing the blind auditions. It wasn’t until they realized that men and women who were on the other side of the curtain listening to the auditions could
hear the footsteps [and tell] whether it was a man or a woman. As soon as they got rid of the footsteps and you truly couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, then the numbers came up. Talk about the bias in the system. You can redesign things to get rid of the bias.

There’s been an emphasis here at the conference, as well as in the United States lately, on this word empowerment. Could tell me what empowerment as a word means to you? How does your foundation engage with it?
To me, empowerment means if a woman has her voice and her agency. Can she say what she thinks needs to be said in any setting? Does she have the agency to make decisions on behalf of herself and her family? If you sit on a corporate board and you don’t think you can voice what you’re seeing on that board or in that corporation that is wrong, then you don’t have your voice. I first started looking at these issues in the developing world, and I would say, “Well, okay, if this was like the U.S. then women would have this and that.” But then I had to ask myself, “Well, how far are we in the U.S.? Are we as far as I want to go?” No. When a woman in the U.S. gets on a corporate board, when there’s one of her, she’s not going to make a change. When there are two or three, then she has agency and she has her voice because there’s a power in the collective. Then they get the other men on the board with her who are also saying, “Hey, we’re seeing the same things,” and they come forward as a group. There’s a power in the collective of the group. Men have had these natural networks for a long time. Women have tons of social networks, but it’s not until you get them together, and get them together in the right way, that they give women their voice and their agency.

The tech industry is a place where women are really at a disadvantage in the States right now. How do we change that?
When I was in college, it was almost right at the peak. We were on our way up. We got to 34 percent of computer-science degrees were given to women. We all thought it was on the rise, just like doctors and lawyers. Now it’s down at 17 percent. We have to get women in the tech space. There’s a lot of loss points for women. One is, when games switched from being very gender-neutral to being very male, that was a huge switch for women. Another point is that it’s not very welcoming. We don’t see professional women. The great colleges are actually scooping women up and starting to graduate them. University of Washington, Stanford, etc., they have phenomenal programs that lots of freshmen women enter and see female professors there. We have to look at all those things.

There are two reasons why it is absolutely fundamental that women go into technology: One is that they are some of the highest-paying jobs in the United States, so that should be open to women. Secondly, that’s where all the new innovations are coming from. When I was a kid, we didn’t dream of having a computer in our pocket. I got one on my desk, that was early, really early. I was in college when the flip went from typewriter  which I took to college  to computer. When you think about where we’re going — talk about big data — we have all these health apps. They measure your footsteps, they measure your sleep, your heart rate; some of them come out and don’t measure women’s menstrual cycle. How could that be? It’s because you don’t have women at the table. If you have a woman at the table, she’s not going to let a health app come out that doesn’t talk about something that happens to every woman every month. When I think about where artificial intelligence is going, if we’re training artificial intelligence just with males right now, and yet that’s going to be part of the service industry or taking care of old people, how do we not have a female voice in that? Are you kidding me?

You also have to look at women starting businesses. Why aren’t women getting more patents? The fact is that venture capital is not very welcoming for women. We’re not getting capital in the hands of women. It’s just like in the developing world: You have to get capital in the hands of women. In the tech space, you have to get capital in the hands of women so they can start all these great next apps and innovations.

There have been lots of things written about what it’s like for these women working at places like Facebook, where maybe there is one woman in the room. How do we get that woman to stay in the room? How do we get her to bring other women into the room?
I think it’s hard. It’s very hard when she’s alone. She’s got to try to bring other women in by mentoring and sponsoring them. But the women who are there — and this is what I’m seeing in the last six months — are starting to push all around the edges. You’re starting to see the transparency. Any time you want a cultural change, you have to have transparency, and you’ve got to have commitment. Women are asking now about the numbers in tech, and you’re starting to see that companies are having to publish them. If they’re not, they’re being shamed into it. You get some very enlightened leaders; you get a Marc Benioff saying, “Hey, I want to be transparent about the data, this is what I found. I’m going to change the pay inside of my company.” You’re starting to see a host of women fund around the venture-capitalist space. In Washington State, we’ve got so many kids trying to go into computer science, male and female now, that the colleges can’t take them all. So it’s about getting those colleges to disperse their lessons to other universities.

Do you think that it’s happening fast enough?
Change is never fast. There needs to be more done, but I’m starting to see it happen.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Melinda Gates Wants to Take the Bias Out of Data