Melinda Gates Tells David Letterman It's "Important That Women and People of Color Are Designing Our Future"

Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix
Melinda Gates

Appearing on Netflix's 'My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,' the philanthropist spoke about gender equality in the home, using the example of a positive chain reaction that occurred when news spread that Bill Gates was driving his kids to school and how other dads began to follow suit.

As David Letterman's interview subject on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Melinda Gates, who co-chairs a philanthropy foundation with her husband, Bill Gates, was asked by Letterman to clarify why she agreed to participate in the show. "I love what you said earlier about being a continuous learner, and Bill and I think of ourselves as being on a learning journey," she said. The philanthropist then mentioned her recent book, The Moment of Lift, which explores gender equality, explaining that she is eager to discuss the subject.

Letterman referred to the lessons in the book as "jaw dropping," before leading off with a question with one from his wife: "Is there a historical model for your foundation?" Gates shared that she read about the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation, explaining that they helped her identify what the role of philanthropy is in society. "What philanthropy can do that a government can't do with taxpayer funding is to take some risks, and if they prove out, then it's up to us to get government to really scale them up."

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation of its kind, and Gates explained what their mission really encompasses. "Our foundation uniquely thinks about, where can we uniquely act in the world? So a lot of the work we do in the developing world is around health, because if you don't start with great health, you can't go on to get a great education and reach your full potential." One of its current tasks is working to eliminate polio in the world, of which Gates indicates there are less than 30 current cases. 

As Gates moves forward with the foundation, she keeps a piece of advice handy that she learned from former President Carter: allow the locals in the country where she's helping to own it and see the improvements as theirs. If they don't, the work that's been done will go away after a certain amount of time. "So when we go in, we work very closely on their goals, we see where we can have shared priorities," Gates said. 

Further into the interview, Letterman referenced her background in computer science — she joined Microsoft as a marketing manager when it was a startup — and asked if women have reached the level of empowerment they deserve to join tech industries. "When I was in college in the 1980s, we thought women were on the rise in computer science, just like medicine and law, computer science was on the rise and we got as high as 37 percent, and then it took a precipitous drop," said Gates. "We're now at 19 percent of computer science graduates are women."

The philanthropist has used her voice over the years to speak out about this issue because she feels it is "vitally important that women and people of color have a seat at the table and are designing our future." Considering what can be done, Gates continues that "multiple pathways" into the tech industry have to open up in schools and colleges through internships and other workplace programs. 

Speaking of the key to equality, Gates believes that change begins in the home. She shared that she and Bill have "uncomfortable conversations" within their marriage about such things as who will drive the kids to school or participate in each household task, because it ensures there is a base level of equality there. Using the example of Bill driving the kids to school two days a week, she explained that a positive chain of effects was put into motion at their daughter's preschool: other dads started driving their kids to school. 

Continuing the topic of women and children, Letterman highlighted a statistic from the book that indicates childbirth is the single biggest killer of teenage girls. In light of that, Gates is working toward ensuring that contraceptives are easier to obtain in remote parts of the world. "Here's how we know [change] is possible; in every country in the world where you're given access to modern contraceptives, it only takes one generation for them to be fully uptake, and for them to see the birth rate decline. And once they have consistent access, women will use it, and what they'll also do is they'll do it covertly without their husband knowing it."

Considering the way forward, Gates told the audience, "If we connect over our humanity and we see that in one another, we want the same things, then we start to help think about solutions or bring resources in or knowledge to help people life themselves up. We all have contributions to make."