The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World
By Melinda Gates
Flatiron Books, 2019, $26.99, 288 pages.
As reviewed by Stefanie Sanford
We were nervous, and we were early. The inaugural education team at the Gates Foundation was about to have its first strategy review, and five of us were gathered around the conference-room table in a retrofitted old postal facility in a perversely hard-to-find part of Seattle. Bill and Melinda Gates arrived on time, Melinda probably eight months pregnant, and all I could think of was, Please, God, don’t go into labor during this meeting. I instantly recalled that line from Gone With the Wind: “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies!”
This was summer of 2002, the early days of the foundation, shortly after Newsweek put Bill and Melinda Gates on the cover with the headline, “They’ve given away $24B.” Our advocacy group was based in Washington, D.C., and everywhere we went, people talked about that cover. Giving away that much money can make you a lot of friends—and a lot of enemies.
I’d never met Melinda, and I’ll admit I was a smidge intimidated by the power and fame depicted on that cover. And yet, once the meeting started, all that slipped away. We talked about goals and strategy, young people and opportunity, teachers and leaders, scale and the role of the foundation as a catalyst to improve education. Melinda was prepared and asked tough and respectful questions. I sat on her right, and when I spoke, she looked me in the eye. She listened intently and put me at ease. Then she checked the spreadsheet and asked about this number or that state, about how the models would work and last. She believed, as we all believed, that good schools give students “an audacious sense of who they are and what they can do.”
We walked out of that meeting with a few follow-up questions and a green light for our plan. Over the next ten years, I traveled many times with Gates to visit schools, communities, and policymakers, and watched her take on a larger role in the foundation—and then the world.
Now, nearly 20 years after I first met her, Gates has written Moment of Lift, a book that is part memoir, part witness, and part strategy review. It features many moving stories of women she has met in the developing world and a wealth of evidence that educating young women is the first step toward solving all kinds of social and economic ills.
In preparing Moment of Lift, she listened, showed deep respect, and did her homework, just as she’d done in my first meeting with her. Even though she was already the wealthiest woman in the world by the time she started the book, she was committed to really knowing the women she met—their struggles, their dreams—and determined to absorb their lessons to make a better world. Then, and always, she heeded her mother’s advice: “Set your own agenda, or someone else will.”
But, for me, the most stirring parts of Moment of Lift are those that occurred before the Newsweek cover: when she is Melinda the little girl, fascinated by rockets (her dad worked on NASA’s Apollo program and took her to launches); Melinda the Catholic-high-school girl getting inspired by a great teacher to learn computer programming, only to be shooed away from math or a top college by a provincial counselor. (Spoiler alert: Gates graduated from Duke in five years with a degree in computer science and an MBA.) Or the fresh-out-of-school Melinda, often the only woman in the room at a hot new company called Microsoft. She talks about being 22 and leading huge efforts at the organization; she also talks about the many frustrations that came with her work, such as being talked over in meetings by swaggering young male programmers. She recalls fuming with her best friend at work, “It’s not okay for women to cry at work, but it is okay for men to yell? Which is the more emotionally mature response?”
She’s vivid and candid about how, for some women, determination can become perfectionism and can sometimes be self-defeating. She tells of two mistakes she made: one was Microsoft Bob, a very public failure of the first project on which she was marketing lead, and a minor error on an expense report. She relates these stories as if both mistakes were equally galling and appalling.
“Research suggests that women may have more self-doubt than men, that women often underestimate their abilities while many men overestimate theirs,” Gates writes. For her, this tends to emerge as anxious over-preparedness. “Perfectionism for me comes from feeling that I don’t know enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not hard-working enough.”
Eighteen months into a job she loved, she nearly quit. “Could I stay at the company and be myself?” she wondered. “What I realized much later, paradoxically, is that by trying to fit in, I was strengthening the culture that made me feel like I didn’t fit in.”
She didn’t quit, and she eventually conquered with help from other women, especially Patty Stonesifer, who started as a mentor and boss and ended up getting hired as the first CEO of the Gates Foundation. Together, they made Microsoft more inclusive to women, and Stonesifer helped Gates build and lead a 1,700-person team that drew the best “star” software developers from across the organization who wanted to work in the culture Gates created. By the time Gates left Microsoft, she was leading a team larger than the entire organization had been when she’d started about ten years earlier.
To make triumphs like hers more common, we’ll need to confront the daunting, often ugly challenges that hold women back in education and technology. Moment of Lift is filled with insights about the economic impact of expanding education for women, but Gates is at her most eloquent in describing the cultural and political change that comes from opening up classrooms.
We tend to think of this as a developing-world problem, and Gates spends plenty of time on the massive gender disparities in school access around the world. But there are still plenty of first-world problems when it comes to welcoming women in certain fields. There are fewer women studying computer science today than there were when Gates was at Duke. That’s dismaying and galvanizing. “Tech is the most powerful industry in the world,” she writes. “It’s creating the ways we will live our lives. If women are not in tech, women will not have power.”
As the rules of this new world get written (and coded), the biases Gates catalogs so well in Moment of Lift are being codified in our digital lives. That’s especially dangerous as technology becomes more tightly entwined in our civic life. It’s already hard enough to balance the demands of democracy and the digital world; if the tech sector continues to shun half the population, that problem is only going to get worse. “If you care about equality, you have to embrace diversity—especially now, as people in tech are programming our computers and designing artificial intelligence,” she writes. “If we want a society that reflects the values of empathy, unity, and diversity, it matters who writes the code.”
Moment of Lift is a fervent call to action but also a call for greater confidence for all women, whether in Silicon Valley or sub-Saharan Africa. “All the women I’ve talked to and all the data I’ve seen convince me that the most transforming force of education for women and girls is changing the self-image of the girl who goes to school,” Gates writes. “This is how the great movements of social change get traction: when outsiders reject the low self-image society has imposed on them and begin to author a self-image of their own.”
It’s also true that real change begins with an internal fire, the drive for respect and basic justice that comes along with knowledge and skill. “That is the secret an empowering education: A girl learns she Is not who she’s been told she is. She is the equal of anyone, and she has rights she needs to assert and defend.”
Education is the “incomparable lift,” Gates says. “When you send a girl to school, the good deed never dies.”
Stefanie Sanford is chief of global policy and external relations at The College Board. Education Next has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where Sanford worked from 2002 to 2013.