By Barbara Bry
Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 9, 2021
Billion with a “B” is a lot of money, but the key issue is how to spend it best to create the most impact, what I call the best “bang for your billion.”
The Gates Foundation has recently committed to spending $2.1 billion over the next five years in an effort to advance gender equality with a focus on economic empowerment, family planning and health, and accelerating women in leadership. They didn’t ask me, but I thought I would share a few ideas with them to help move the needle.
Progress in this arena has been slow for women in the U.S. and around the world. And the COVID pandemic has made even more apparent the lack of a safety net for women and children everywhere.
The Gates announcement caused me to reflect on my own life and what has changed and what hasn’t. I was raised by a single mother who was paid less than the comparable men, and there was nothing she could do about it. I earned an MBA at Harvard in 1976. I spent most of my early career as either the only woman in the room or one of only a few women. Like many of my generation, I experienced sexual harassment and was sometimes paid less than comparable men. In 1981, I was working at the Los Angeles Times, and I received only six weeks of paid maternity leave when my oldest daughter, Sarah, was born. No support was provided for nursing moms, and I pumped milk in a women’s bathroom stall.
Fast forward to 2021. My two daughters now have their own children, and I see the challenges they face in navigating their careers and raising children, even with supportive spouses.
As I talked with economists and public policy faculty at various universities, they first differentiated between the priorities of women in the U.S. vs. developing countries where economic survival and access to basic health care can be life-threatening.
I found strong consensus about the importance of investment in the CARE economy, the continuum from child care to elder care, and the need to figure out new models. But I also encountered some disagreement about what philanthropy can accomplish.
“So much of the crisis we are facing is political. I would use the money to support the political change to have legislation passed that would change things for everyone. Until that happens, I see the private philanthropic efforts as nice, but in a way beside the point,” said Ariela Gross, professor of law at the University of Southern California.
UC San Diego economics professor Prashant Bharadwaj, who teaches a class on discrimination, coined the term “sex ratio”— a phrase I hadn’t heard before. He explained that in countries like India and China, parents self-select having male babies so there are significantly more men than women. “In poorer countries, we’re talking about these missing women as the priority. In richer countries, it’s when does the gender pay gap start,” he said.
Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, advocated for funding pilot initiatives that provide better pay and benefits for child care providers as well as building out a system for effective elder care. She would also spend money to change public perceptions so that policymakers take action. She frames care as infrastructure since it’s “a critical aspect of women’s full equality and economic participation in society.”
A measurement tool could be the four key World Economic Forum pillars — education attainment, economic participation, health and mortality rates, and political participation, suggested Kellie McElhaney, founder, Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley. A priority for McElhaney would be efforts to elect more women to office because they are more likely to focus on child care and equal pay.
Agreeing that investment in the care economy should be a priority, Colleen Ammerman, director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, noted that you can address some issues related to gender equality directly with dollars — others are more about people’s beliefs and social norms, and that change is slower.
That kind of change will be generational, but it is happening. Philanthropy has an important role to play in funding pilot projects that can be replicated. And when Melinda Gates French speaks out with billions, government and corporate leaders will listen.