What if gender equality could change the face of poverty?

Asking questions and diving into the data are a large part of my job. The questions that keep me up at night usually begin with Why. Why are women more likely to be poor than men? Why hasn’t progress in health and economies benefited both men and women equally?

Research over the years has shown that poverty and inequality are deeply intertwined. Especially in the developing world, women still earn less, learn less, own less, and wield much less social and economic power than their brothers and husbands. This leads to negative consequences that affect women’s health, schooling, job prospects, and even the control women have — or lack — over their own lives and choices.

But the world has more appetite than ever before to advance gender equality. The leaders of 193 nations have pledged to end gender inequality by 2030. Women are raising their collective voices, and the world is listening. I remain particularly inspired by the expanding global momentum to tackle not just the symptoms, but the drivers of inequality.

So what if we flip the narrative? What if the barriers that perpetuate inequality were removed, and women and girls had the same opportunity as men and boys to earn a fair income, have a voice in their families and communities, and dictate the course of their own lives? What if gender equality could change the face of poverty?

The results would be transformative for women, girls, their families, and their communities. And I’m thrilled to announce the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doubling down on its commitment to put women and girls at the center of development.

For the first time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is launching a program strategy dedicated specifically to gender equality. The focus of our strategy is to transform the way women participate in economies — because we believe that taking charge of your economic future is one of the most profound ways to exercise power over your life. We know that women and girls need to be empowered economically if they are to act and engage as equals in society. And we know that we can’t achieve a healthier, greater world for everyone if women and girls are still being left behind.

Gender equality has always been at the heart of our work, through initiatives on nutrition, health, and family planning. But in looking at the ways that women and girls’ lives are differentially impacted by poverty across all our program areas, we realized it was necessary to develop an overarching strategy that aims to systematically tackle the barriers that hold women and girls back from living to their full potential.

During the past year, we conducted rigorous research and analysis in nearly 100 countries to explore what tangible steps it would take to achieve gender equality. We know there is no silver bullet to solving this challenge. But in looking at developing countries that are making significant progress toward equality, we see that economic power emerges as a consistent thread across women’s stories of transformation.

In India, growth in the Business Process Outsourcing industry created an opportunity for rural women to work outside of the home. As women became employed and were able to earn a wage, the economic prospects for their daughters also changed as child marriage and early child-bearing declined and adolescent girls stayed in school longer. In Nepal, women who opened their own bank account had more decision-making control over household spending, which they then put towards their children’s education and the purchase of meat and fish for her family.

Stories like these show that economic opportunities for women lead to other gains at home, at work and in society at large. Economic empowerment holds potential to transform the lives of both women and their daughters and others in their communities.

But we also know that poor women and girls don’t always benefit when economies grow. Indeed we have learned that a rising tide does not lift all boats. Economies aren’t automatically inclusive, and we need deliberate tactics to ensure women aren’t left fighting the current.

That’s why our strategy is focusing on specific areas where the Gates Foundation and our partners can make a measurable impact toward equality.

For the next four years, the foundation is investing $170 million in the following areas: In collaboration with partners close to the ground and embedded in the issues, we will help connect more women with mobile bank accounts so they have the opportunity to receive government transfer payments, and to decide where and how to spend their money. We will connect women to economic markets, especially in agriculture, to expand their profits and income. We will invest in self-help groups that can support women to build up their economic power and voice; and we will expand a new generation of self-help groups to empower women and adolescent girls with the skills and opportunities to control their lives, leveraging lessons learned and the power of digital technology. We will also support research that helps us better understand how productive assets can enhance women’s economic options.

We also are continuing the foundation’s ongoing work to close gender data gaps, support SDG accountability, and strengthen the grassroots movements that build women’s collective power to shape the systems and structures that exclude them. Our women’s economic empowerment strategy builds off lessons learned from our previous investments and will help us strengthen the data and evidence, and hopefully garner more momentum, to tackle gender inequality.

With this strategy, we will help more than 63 million women not just open bank accounts but make their own decisions about spending, saving, and building their own financial futures. We will have richer data and evidence to identify the most effective ways to ensure that low income women can participate more fully in the economy. We will expand what works among “self-help groups” to empower women, including younger segments of women, in India and Africa, to chart a better future for themselves and their families. And we will have a deeper understanding of how economic assets can increase women’s opportunity to find work off of her farm and outside of the home.

Because what if transforming poor women’s economic opportunities really does empower them to stand equally, shoulder to shoulder, with those in their communities and in the world?

In truth, it’s no longer a hypothetic question of What if? But rather a practical one: How soon?

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