Melinda Gates Asks Hollywood to "Project a World Where Everyone Is Valued Equally"

Speaking at THR's annual Women in Entertainment breakfast, the businesswoman and philanthropist asked Hollywood to "greenlight" a better future for women.

Through her philanthropic work Melinda Gates has seen firsthand the gender inequality that exists around the world. But she believes progress is being made and is now calling on the entertainment industry to help enact change. 

"The entertainment industry has an outsized impact on the worlds that you create onscreen," Gates said during a keynote address at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Women in Entertainment breakfast. "You have the ability to reflect the world around you, and you are the ones that can project a world where everyone, everyone is valued equally."

The businesswoman and philanthropist who — together with her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates — runs the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the world, joined Hollywood luminaries and pioneering female executives at Milk Studios in Hollywood on Dec. 9 to talk about her work to reduce poverty around the world. She was introduced by Sean Penn who extolled the work Gates has done with the foundation, which is focused on eradicating polio, eliminating malaria, reducing child mortality and improving the education system in the U.S. 

Gates has also made the empowerment of women and girls a focus of her philanthropy, focusing on increasing access to contraceptives and giving all employees at the Gates Foundation a year of paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child.

Gates shared her message at the breakfast — which also featured speakers Jeffrey Katzenberg, Robert Redford and honoree Barbra Streisand — by examining the world through the eyes of her 13-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who was listening to the speech from the audience. Gates explained that when she was young, her TV role models were June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver ("I knew I wanted to be a great mom like June Cleaver") and Dynasty villain Alexis Carrington ("She was a rare example for me as a young woman of what an executive looked like"). She explained: "I thought it was possible, as a woman growing up, to do both."

But she noted that Phoebe has a whole host of role models to choose from, including Donna Langley, Nancy Dubuc and many of the other women in the room. "By creating and voicing that we need complex role models on screen and beyond, you've helped and continue to help young women imagine what's actually possible for their futures," she said.

Gates also highlighted that the life Phoebe has is much different than the lives of young women she meets around the world. Gates went on to explain that one in three girls in developing countries is married before she turns 19, and one in nine is married before she turns 15. And these young women are often relied on for household chores that take them away from their schoolwork or traditional jobs. 

"In every country and on every continent, women and girls continue to be left behind," Gates said. "They're more likely to live in poverty. They're more likely to not complete their education than to complete it. They aren't making as much money. They aren't rising as high in government or leadership or executive roles. Even their time is considered less valuable." 

But Gates noted that progress is possible and that change is already occurring as more young women attend primary school and enter the workforce. And she called on Hollywood to seize the opportunity. 

"We in this room all have a role to play, and what I want to tell you is that is that your role one of the most powerful ones," she said, noting that progress is made every time "you insist on a strong female lead, or on hiring the most qualified person...or on giving a woman a seat at the table, or a chair that says director." 

Gates continued: "Every time you insist that a better future starts with you, you are moving us closer to that goal for girls and women around the world. ...I'm asking you, all of you, to step up and say to every girl everywhere, 'Go get it.' And I'm here in Los Angeles today because you're exactly the ones who can greenlight it."