Melinda Gates’ book “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World” has been an eye-opening experience in how we can invest in ways that actually accelerate change.

The lessons she offers are not just applicable to development projects but also question and challenge our biases and ways of being at the workplace, from tech industries to farming to universities.

The questions she asks in the book are profound: why do we keep holding on to traditions and ways of thinking even when we know these maintain inequality, disadvantage particular groups of people, and eventually create massive disadvantages to everybody?

Through examples of her own experience, the women she has met over the years, and the programs the Gates Foundation is funding, she paints a very disturbing yet real and empowering insights into why it is women who can create safer and more inclusive communities and companies.


Understanding the context and human needs

The first step in creating any change is that we need to understand who that service is for but even before that what their needs are.

This sounds like pretty basic marketing 101 but so many times we develop ideas on programs thinking that we know what the lives of those people are like that we want to influence.

Or thinking that we understand the problem and that our solutions is capable of influencing those people and deliver the outcomes that we seek.

Yet, with many programs and trainings, we often see weak or low uptake even if we think we have captured the essence of what is needed.

But what really is necessary is a deep dive into those people’s values, beliefs and practices if we aim to deliver information or services that actually can make a difference:

“if you don’t understand the meaning and beliefs behind a community’s practices, you won’t present your idea in the context of their values and concerns, and people won’t hear you” (p. 43).

This isn’t something that a quick survey can deliver as the social science data and aspects of people’s lives are rarely easily captured in no or yes response sheets.

This information is something you can really only gain through intense listening, committing time in thinking how to report these insights, and then really pay attention in tailoring systems or services based on these insights.

For example, the Gates Foundation had a program on reducing HIV infections where the target was on increasing condom use by sex workers in India.

Yet, the program was not working and the infection rates kept creeping rapidly.

Finally, the sex workers themselves explained that they knew everything they needed to know about using condoms but that was the least of their problems: their biggest problem was abuse and physical violence from clients and police, and what they needed were ways to protect themselves.

They would get abused by their clients if they asked them to use condoms, get arrested if they were carrying condoms because they would be identified as sex workers, and often then sexually assaulted by police.

Once the rationalise was clear, the program changed to targeting this gender-based violence through the development of a protection network where women could call a number if they got arrested, and a big group of women with a pro bono lawyer and a media person would enter the police station and demand her release.

This has become so effective that much of this violence has decreased amongst the clients, leading also to increased condom use with dramatic decreases in HIV infections in India.


The big-ticket items in delivering real social change

The book is full of great examples of the kinds of actions and ways of thinking that can deliver accelerated social change across communities, nations and companies.

But it also notes the many barriers that for example women face whether it is the amount of unpaid work at home and increased responsibilities looking after children and the house that leave women with less time to pursue their careers and well-being.

Women especially in developing countries are often tasked with “women’s work” that includes also farming, fetching the water, cooking, keeping the house in order, looking after the whole family, not having access to education and therefore not being able to read and write and pursue vocations.

Many countries have still laws in place that prohibit women working in particular professions and even laws and cultural norms where women cannot leave a house without a man’s permission or enter a career path that is seen as belonging to men.

So it is no wonder why women are often earning less, have less opportunities to pursue different careers, and are often not promoted at work as they can’t put in the same hours of work given their “duties” to running also households.

Yet, the findings from economic studies and many of the programs at Gates Foundation clearly show that investing in women and girls is what delivers social change that has far broader and larger benefits to everyone.

Including women in teams for example has shown clear increases in more innovative and better outcomes, the economic benefits are distributed more equitably in families where women are involved in decision-making, and company cultures change toward more equitable and inclusive processes where more women are involved.

The big ticket items (and the data) tell this more clearly that finding opportunities for women is what can lift many out of poverty, and increase the overall wellbeing of communities.


Equal partnerships are about supporting both men and women 

This reading could result in a rant about how we just need to focus on women.

But the beauty of this book is that amongst the many messages of how women are being prevented from embracing opportunities, Melinda also calls attention to how men often face similar issues as well.

Men are often expected to be aggressive and “strong”, loud and decisive yet many men find themselves wanting to exercise different company culture than what they are expected as men.

Therefore, the task at hand is not just promoting women above all men but rather finding equal partnerships where everyone, those in the margins included, are called to make decisions.

Men are allies in this conversation and are as much part of creating a new more inclusive and equitable culture.

But more than anything, this book has really shown me at least that leadership is not about one single person but a collective endeavour to take action and improve people’s lives.

We are still very much tricked into believing that leadership and leaders are great individuals who have a specific set of skills, and can exercise those.

While this may be true, I think all these programs of social change show that change does not happen because of one person: change happens because a group of people comes together, says enough, and finds a new and better way to live that is inclusive and respects equal partnerships.

This book definitely has resonated with me, and also raised a ton of questions how we can apply these insights in climate adaptation as well, stay tuned for more ideas to come.