The Gates Foundation is pledging to donate $2.1bn to support women’s economic and health issues in its first major initiative since the world’s largest philanthropic group was jolted by the announcement last month that its co-chairs, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, were ending their marriage.
The issue of gender equality is dear to French Gates, a former Microsoft executive, who has in recent years embraced it as her overriding mission. In addition to the Gates Foundation, she also operates a $5bn investment fund, Pivotal Ventures, devoted to women’s causes.
But the Gates Foundation’s support for women’s issues has become awkward after reports emerged about Bill Gates’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who killed himself in his jail cell in 2019 while awaiting trial over charges that he trafficked underage girls.
A spokesperson has said Gates regretted meeting Epstein, and that he had done so only to discuss philanthropic projects.
The latest pledge money will be donated over five years, and spread across three broad categories: $650m for economic empowerment, in part by supporting family care and other unpaid tasks that fall heavily on women; $1.4bn for family planning and contraceptives; and $100m to help women vault into leadership roles in business, politics and other arenas.
The donation coincides with the Generation Equality Forum, a UN-sponsored event that will bring together governments and non-profit groups for three days in Paris to advance the cause of gender equality.
That mission, say backers, has been given fresh impetus by the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken a disproportionate economic toll on women by pushing them out of the workforce and forcing them to shoulder a greater burden of family care.
In a statement, French Gates said: “The world has been fighting for gender equality for decades but progress has been slow. Now is the chance to reignite a movement and deliver real change.”
The announcement comes at a moment of tumult for the $50bn Gates Foundation, which is funded by the fortune Gates amassed as co-founder of Microsoft.
When they announced their marital split, Gates and French Gates insisted they remained committed to its mission and would continue to work together.
But some former executives have questioned whether the philanthropic juggernaut can continue to operate as it is currently constituted. Those concerns deepened after Warren Buffett, the Berkshire Hathaway chair who has committed most of his fortune to the foundation, announced last week that he was resigning as a trustee.
Mark Suzman, the foundation’s chief executive, has told staff that he will unveil additional changes to its governance next month.
In a statement announcing the $2.1bn pledge, Gates said: “Prioritising gender equality is not only the right thing to do, it is essential to fighting poverty and preventable disease.”
Meanwhile, the foundation also presented fresh economic data illustrating how the pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality by pushing women out of the workforce in disproportionate numbers.
According to data from the International Labour Organization, unemployment among women increased by 13m between 2019 and 2020 — and is projected to rise by another 2m this year — while men have largely recovered jobs lost during the pandemic.
“Gender equality is an economic necessity,” French Gates wrote in a separate letter. “One of the main reasons economies were so fragile in the first place was that women were marginalised. And those economies will never bounce back if their leaders continue to marginalise women.”