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Melinda French Gates invests in boys and men: a new era for gender equality

by Richard V. Reeves “We have to rise together. I’m honored to be asked to direct $20 million to help us all rise together.”

Melinda French Gates

As part of this new effort, French Gates has created some dedicated grantmaking funds. As she writes in the New York Times: “I offered 12 people whose work I admire their own $20 million grant-making fund to distribute as he or she sees fit.”

Most of these funds will be directed by stellar women working on issues related to female and LGBTQ education, empowerment and health, both in the U.S. and overseas.The big surprise for many will be her decision to channel resources towards the challenges faced by boys and men. I have been asked to direct one of these funds, which is a great honor. Another is being directed by Gary Barker of Equimundo, a gender equality organization focused on boys and men.

This is an important moment in the movement for gender equality. It sends a powerful and timely message that the gender equality movement can—and should—expand to include boys and men.

Gender equality is not a zero sum game. We can do more for boys and men without doing less for women and girls. We can be passionate about women’s rights, and compassionate towards the struggles of boys and men.


Two thoughts at once

Of course there remain many gender gaps where women and girls remain at a disadvantage, especially in terms of pay, senior positions of leadership, access to venture capital, and so on. But in advanced economies, there are also gender gaps where boys and men have now fallen behind, especially if they are Black or from a lower-income background. In the U.S. for example:

What should advocates for gender equality make of these facts? Until recently, the standard response has been to ignore them, on the grounds that gender equality is exclusively a women’s issue. This is a mistaken approach. If gender gaps matter, they matter in both directions. Excluding boys and men also makes it easier for reactionary voices to claim that gender equality is in conflict with the interests of boys and men.

The much better response is to expand the reach of gender equality to include the issues of boys and men. The point is not that young women do not have problems. It is that boys and young men do as well. Two things can be true at the same time.

Gender equality in expansive mode

There are other prominent figures pushing towards a more expansive approach to gender equality. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, is one. As he said in a recent interview:

It’s important to start with acknowledging that young men and boys are actually going through a crisis of their own…the data is actually quite clear that young men and boys are actually falling behind on many metrics

Recent developments in other countries point in a similarly expansive direction. The Danish government has published a report on improving outcomes for boys in schools, which includes a call to update the country’s gender equality laws to cover boys and men. The UK parliament has issued a formal Inquiry on the same subject. Wes Streeting, set to be Health Secretary in a likely new Labour Government in the UK, is developing a men’s health strategy, complementing the equivalent initiative for women.

Most impressive of all, the Norwegian Government’s Men’s Equality Commission recently published its final report, Equality’s Next Step, after two years of work. It contains a raft of sensible policy recommendations, including more dedicated paid leave for fathers, a gender-neutral equality law, and the creation of a Men’s Health Committee. The report breaks out of zero-sum thinking, insisting, correctly, that “greater attention to boys’ and men’s challenges will strengthen equality policy, not weaken it.”

Helping boys and men is the right thing to do in itself. But it is also the right thing to do for women and girls. In the long run, a world of floundering men is not likely to be a world of flourishing women. Broadening the gender equality movement to include men will not hinder the progress of women. Failing to, just might.

We have to rise together.

Richard V Reeves

Writer, wonk, Dad. Founding President, American Institute for Boys and Men via Brookings. Tweeting from @richardvreeves. Books include Of Boys and Men (2022), Dream Hoarders (2017), and John Stuart Mill (2007).
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