Melinda French Gates on Why “Being Yourself” Doesn’t Always Work for Women

May 16, 2024

Cosmopolitan | By Jessica Giles

Here we are in another presidential election year. (Pause for scream.) Chaos will surely abound on the campaign trail and elsewhere, but we here at Cosmo have found a way to not only survive elections but to use them to feel tangibly better about the world: Focus on the women.

A few elections ago, this took the form of our award-winning guide telling women exactly How to Run for Office. It felt urgent—at the time, only 8 percent of women told us they’d even consider running for office. Fast-forward seven years and nearly one-third of our state legislature seats are held by women. Twenty-eight percent of elected officials in Congress are women (compared to 19 percent 10 years ago). And we have our first-ever woman Vice President.

Now there’s a new urgency: While more women are gaining elected positions, they’re facing frustrating—and frustratingly gendered—obstacles once they’re on the job. So we’ve decided to publish a new guide about how to succeed in office once you get there.

It’s perhaps no surprise that for elected women, success requires the support of other women. Take it from our partner on the project, Pivotal Ventures, an investment and philanthropic company founded by Melinda French Gates to put $1 billion toward expanding women’s power and influence in the U.S. I caught up with Melinda—or “MFG” as her colleagues fondly call her and now so do I—this spring, right before Election Year 2024 really went into overdrive, to talk about our shared passion for helping all women thrive.

You’ve spoken before about how we (still!) live in a country where decisions are made for women instead of by women. And you’ve already done a lot of work to push for change, including investing in getting women elected to office. From your vantage point, when do you think we’ll reach true gender parity in our political representation?

If nothing changes, it will take 100 years to reach gender parity in our state legislatures. I’m not willing to wait that long.

So what will it take to speed things up? First, we need to make it easier for women to run for office and win right now. That means supporting them with the funding, networks, and training they need to thrive in the political system we have.

But more than anything, we need to change that system—because it wasn’t built with women in mind. Take legislative pay. It’s not nearly enough to support a family, and many people, especially women, literally can’t afford to run. Or consider the lack of paid leave. If a woman gives birth while serving the people of her state, she faces the impossible choice of giving up either a paycheck or time to care for her new baby.

If we start to question the gendered assumptions baked into our political system—and then take action to change them—we can dramatically accelerate that 100-year timeline.

We are making progress. Ten years ago, women made up less than 19 percent of the U.S. Congress; today, they make up 28 percent. One state legislature has even gone beyond gender parity, with more women than men serving in its governing body. But obviously we wish we didn’t even have to have this “progress” discussion in 2024. What would you say to encourage people who feel a little disheartened that this change has been so slow?

Listen, I think it’s valid to feel disheartened. The consequences of this inequality are very real and very painful—from losing a fundamental right in Roe v. Wade to the fact that we are still the only industrialized nation in the world without paid family and medical leave. But instead of being overwhelmed by that frustration, use it to make the change you want to see.

And as you said, that change is happening. There are currently more women governors, more women in Congress, and more women of color serving in state legislatures than ever before. And a lot of those women ran because they channeled their outrage into action!

Let your dissatisfaction with the status quo be the spark that urges you to take a step. And let the progress we’ve already made help sustain that fire on the long road ahead.

Our How to Succeed in Office project looks at what happens to women who’ve already won political positions—and how the really hard part often starts after Election Day. As we lay out in detail, there are lots of barriers to success for women in these so-called positions of power. In many ways, I can relate. How about you? Have there been times in your own career where you’ve had the title but perhaps not the wherewithal to wield the power that’s supposed to come with it?

I can absolutely relate. Early on in my career at Microsoft, I almost quit. I loved the work I was doing, but the culture was competitive and argumentative. It felt like my success hinged on replicating that leadership style, which—let’s be honest—is prevalent in male-dominated workplaces.

Luckily, I got to work with some incredible women who modeled a different way to lead. They showed me that I didn’t have to compromise my values to be successful at work. Because of the examples they set, I learned how to embrace my own style and be myself, which made me more effective at my job. Unfortunately, “being yourself” isn’t always enough to overcome the structural barriers that women face inside and outside of the workplace. But it’s a reminder that the unique skills and perspectives we bring to a job make us powerful.

Are there ways you’ve seen elected women use their influence that differ from how you’ve seen elected men use their influence?

Women are not a monolith. Different women will govern differently. But the evidence shows that women legislators are more likely to get budgets passed on time and work more collaboratively across party lines. Simply put, they get things done.

Women in office have also told me that their ability to listen, ask questions, compromise, and be empathetic has set them apart from other politicians. These are traits we typically associate with women, so we tend to undervalue them. But embracing those qualities helped these women win their races—and it’s helped them govern more effectively too.

Finally, the women legislators I’ve met had different motivations for seeking higher office. Instead of trying to make a name for themselves, they’re trying to make a difference for their communities. As one of them put it: Some people get into politics to be someone, but women get into politics to change something.

Our reporting exposes the double standards for elected women, especially when it comes to their personal relationships. (One of our sources faces suspicion from constituents whenever she attends an event without her husband.) Of course, many politicians face scrutiny of their personal lives, but this feels like a maddening added layer—especially when combined with overt sexism, like when another one of our sources got a message to stop campaigning and “go back to the kitchen.” What advice would you give elected women who are facing situations like these?

Get connected. Sexist comments are meant to shame you, and shame makes you feel like you’re alone. But I can guarantee you that so many other women know exactly how you feel, and there is such a power in hearing someone else share their story.

On a practical level, those women in your network often become the person in your corner—supporting your idea in a meeting, championing your cause to their colleagues, and becoming the voice that drowns out the hecklers.

Pivotal Ventures partners with great organizations that can help women in politics connect with mentors and peers, such as Future Caucus, Sister District, Vote Mama, and the Women’s Legislative Network of NCSL. These are phenomenal places to start. That being said, I think we can all agree that we should work to change the broader system so that women don’t have to field these kinds of comments at all.

You’ve focused much of your work on state legislatures, which are also a focus of our project. These governing bodies are soimportant to people’s day-to-day lives, yet many (or even most) Americans would be hard-pressed to name more than one of their state representatives or state senators. How do you think we can make local government more “exciting” and therefore more engaging to the people it impacts, i.e., all of us?

Let me just start by underscoring your point about how much state legislatures matter. They’re in charge of almost all school funding. Bridges and roads. Gun safety laws. Minimum wage. Reproductive rights. If you care about education, health, safety, opportunity, and equity in your community, then you care about state government. And let’s not forget that these seats often serve as launching pads to higher office—half of the women serving in the U.S. Congress today served in state legislatures.

The problem isn’t that the work is unexciting to people; it’s that people don’t always know about the work. That’s why conversations like this one are so important. There are so many inspiring stories of state lawmakers doing great work across the country. If more people can hear about them, then I think they’ll be more inspired to get involved.

Spreading awareness is an important step in helping women at any level of office succeed. But as you’ve already noted, many of the other challenges elected women face are systemic, deeply rooted in the way our governments—and, honestly, our society—function. How do you organize all this in your mind when it comes to where to start? And what would you say to a reader who wants to help but has no idea where to begin (I mean, other than reading this entire package 😉 )?

This is a challenge with so many of the issues I work on. The problems are so big and so complicated, it’s easy to get lost and then get discouraged. I am lucky that at Pivotal Ventures, I get to work with a team and a group of partners who are focused on the hard, slow work of changing deeply rooted and deeply unfair systems that work against women and other marginalized communities.

But in a democracy, government is participatory, and that gives every individual power. There are 7,386 state legislative seats in the U.S. Take an interest in one of those campaigns. Learn the issues. Find a candidate you believe in. Volunteer. And don’t underestimate the impact of a small-dollar donation—so many women candidates in local and state elections rely on these donations.

If you help get one leader elected, they go to the state capitol and become one more voice for the systemic changes you want to see. Democracy is always happening at a scale that anyone can engage in.

Are there any elected women whom you currently really admire for their ability to overcome one or more of the challenges we discuss in our project?

Last year, my team and I met with a group of state legislators, and the challenges that women and non-binary elected officials face are just enormous. Women of color have to field racist comments that undermine their credibility and impact their funding. New moms struggle to care for a newborn and get on the floor to vote. And most disturbingly, candidates and elected officials are facing harassment and violence targeting their race and gender.

But these public servants also speak of their work with so much pride and passion. They are out there changing things in fundamental ways. Every single one of them is my hero—and that goes for anyone who has the courage to do the hard work of fighting for the progress our country needs.

I love to see how deeply invested you are in elected women’s success and in promoting women’s power and influence in general. Have you ever considered taking it one step further and…running for office yourself?

Short answer, no. Slightly longer answer, I enjoy doing what I’m doing, which is working to support changemakers in communities across the country and around the world. I believe that together, we are helping women and girls exercise more power and influence in all aspects of their lives—and I’d rather see them run for office.

Rep. Sara Jacobs


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