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Decisions Are Still Being Made For Women, Instead of By Them. We’re Suffering As a Result

5 minute read
French Gates is founder of Pivotal Ventures and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

When you look at the stories that have dominated the headlines in recent months, a certain pattern emerges: A global pandemic that is disproportionately destroying women’s livelihoods. A Taliban government that is stripping women and girls of basic freedoms. Russian soldiers using rape as a deliberate strategy of war. In this chain of global crises, the face of power is still most often a man’s, and the face of suffering is still so often a woman’s.

Consider what is happening right now in our own country. Many of us are bracing for the news that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe vs. Wade, depriving women of authority over their bodies and futures.

Consider also the larger structure of power behind that ruling. Yes, the Court recently reached a milestone for gender equality. But woman or man, every justice on that bench—in fact, every justice who has ever sat on that bench—was appointed by a male president and confirmed by a Senate that was at least three-quarters male. Many of these justices, presidents, and lawmakers have been brilliant and visionary public servants. They have never, however, fully reflected the diversity of the country they served. Even if government deserved a say in this deeply personal matter—which I believe it does not—this is not a government in which women or people of color yet have an equal voice.

The leaked court opinion is only one of many examples of the breakdown that occurs when decisions are made for women instead of by them. In the U.S., basic childcare remains inaccessible and unaffordable. Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. And we continue to be the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee paid leave of any kind.

In my experience as a global advocate for women and girls, I have seen versions of this same inequality all over the world. Sometimes, the assault on women’s power is obvious, as it is today in Afghanistan and the violence in Ukraine. Other times, it’s harder to see, as in the countless small decisions that make women especially vulnerable to the economic shock of the pandemic or the bias and inertia that keeps political representation overwhelmingly male.

Either way, I have learned the same lesson again and again: When the face of power remains the same, the face of suffering does, too. What’s more, policies restricting women and girls ultimately harm everyone. A world that limits women’s power and influence also robs itself of women’s talents and contributions. Her family, community, and country feel that absence in ways both subtle and significant.

Today, through my philanthropic efforts, I support programs and grantees working on a wide range of issues, including access to health care and contraceptives in low- and middle-income countries and women’s economic opportunity in the U.S. and around the world. But I’ve learned over the course of my career in philanthropy that it’s impossible to disrupt old patterns of inequity by focusing only on one issue at time. The investments I make are interconnected, designed to add up to something more than the sum of their parts. They are intended to help change the face of power itself—to position more women of all backgrounds to make decisions, control resources, and shape policies and perspectives.

An agenda to secure women’s power and influence attacks inequality at its roots, instead of contending individually with the many branches that sprout from it. It is a holistic approach—the only way we can break the chain of crises that continue to push women further behind.

This work must be both top-down and bottom-up. We must include efforts to launch diverse groups of women to positions of leadership, not only in government but in global health, business, and media. At the same time, it requires supporting the grassroots women’s movements that are coming together to demand changes from the formal structures of power that have locked them out.

Additionally, it means turning off the surround sound of sexist norms and narratives that make it harder for women to be seen as truly equal or deserving of a role in the decisions that shape our world. By elevating a diverse set of voices and stories that challenge old biases and understandings, we can help men and women alike start to picture a more inclusive range of faces when they conjure an image of power—and encourage them to expect more from the people who hold it.

If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, it will be a big step backward for women, for families, and for our country. But I also believe that one court decision will never be enough to guarantee or deny equality. In the long run, whether or not our society fulfills its democratic promise will depend on the public our government represents.

Right now, millions of people jarred by the leaked decision are recommitting to the fight for a better, more equal future. That future is not merely one in which women’s reproductive rights are protected; it is one in which the entire system that makes women’s lives so precarious has been dismantled. It is a future in which women’s voices ring clear and true, and are respected and heard, at all levels of society—in their homes and their workplaces, in capitols and C-suites, and indeed, in the privacy of a clinic or doctor’s office.

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