But I was lucky. I had a mother who encouraged me to be anything I wanted to be – and a father who insisted that being a girl should never limit my dreams.
With my parents’ help, I earned degrees in computer science and business and spent a decade as a software executive at Microsoft.
But their support didn’t just turn me into a computer scientist. It also taught me what it means to be an advocate for women and girls. And through my parents’ example, I also learnt the value of giving back to society from an early age.
Now, as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I’m trying to put these lessons into practice to help unlock the potential of women and girls around the world.
Over the past decade and a half, I travelled a great deal and met a great number of people from all walks of life. It is the best part of the job – hearing their stories, being invited into their homes, and learning about their lives.
It’s why I am so excited about my visit to Tanzania to see for myself the work that the foundation and partners are doing. It’s a chance to hear first-hand the stories of the individuals whose lives have changed for the better – and, in turn, are improving the lives of their families and strengthening their communities.
By many measures, there has never been a better time to be born a girl. The data tell us that that in virtually every country, women are leading longer, healthier, better lives than ever before. But it also confirms that there is a long way to go to reach true gender equality.
Women and girls still learn less, earn less, and have far fewer opportunities. And that’s bad news for all of us no matter what our gender. When girls can reach their full potential, everyone benefits, including boys and men.
Investing in women and girls isn’t only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing. It saves lives, makes families more prosperous, and builds stronger economies.
That’s because women invest the majority of every dollar they make back into their families and prioritise the household budget for healthcare, nutritious food, and education – the building blocks of thriving societies.
Agriculture is one of these essential building blocks. It’s an engine of growth for smallholder farmers, businesses and national economies. If women farmers across low and middle-income countries had the same access to resources as men, yields could increase by as much as 30 per cent per household.
So it is a major barrier to progress that women farmers across the world still lack the control over the income and resources that they need for their families to prosper. This is why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to empower women through access to family planning services, access to support for smallholder farmers, and access to innovative financial services.
We also work with partners in Tanzania to empower women working in small-scale agriculture. And it’s why I make trips regularly to learn and hear directly from beneficiaries and from those driving impact where change is happening.
As part of my upcoming trip to Tanzania, I am looking forward to meeting the inspiring winners of ‘Mama Shujaa wa Chakula’ – the female food heroes that have captured global attention.
While progress on the whole is positive, more needs to be done – in Tanzania and beyond – to ensure that women smallholder farmers succeed.
I like to call myself an impatient optimist. I know progress is possible because we see it happening all around us. But what’s urgently needed now is for us all to work together to speed it up.
• Melinda Gates is co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.