The co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports initiatives in education and world health.
The co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports initiatives in education and world health.

Editor’s Note: This is an abridged version of a speech delivered by Melinda Gates in New York as part of No Ceilings, a gender equality initiative from The Clinton Foundation.

CNN —  

The most rewarding part of my job is meeting women and girls from all over the world who are striving for the same goal: a good life for themselves and their families. Their courage and ingenuity against long odds is all the evidence I need that equality for women and girls must be my top priority.

I turned 50 last year. Milestones are good times for reflection, and I spent a lot of timing thinking about what I wanted to accomplish with the rest of my life.

Like you, I want to make sure I’m doing the things that will help women and girls the most. This report can help each of us answer that question for ourselves.

By studying the areas where women and girls have made the most progress in the past 20 years, we can learn to replicate those successes in other areas. And because the report identifies where the biggest gaps are, we have what amounts to a blueprint for action.

This is good news for mothers and good news for families and children as well. The Gates Foundation has focused on health because we believe that a productive life begins with health. Research has shown that healthy mothers are the linchpin for healthy families. Healthier mothers mean healthier children, stronger families, and more prosperous communities. Tragically, the inverse is also true – for instance, children born to mothers who die in childbirth are more likely to die in the first two years of life.

Even though we’ve made great strides, there’s still work to do. Every day, 800 women continue to die from largely preventable complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. More than 220 million women who don’t want to be pregnant still don’t use modern methods of family planning. Family planning is vital to building better societies because when women and their partners have access to contraceptives, everyone benefits.

Maternal mortality rates drop, children are healthier and better educated, and incomes rise. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a women’s group outside Nairobi, Kenya. I asked them what they thought of family planning, and a woman named Marianne said: “I want to give every good thing to one child before I have another.” That single sentence expresses perfectly why family planning is so important.

On a macroeconomic level, studies have shown that if we can close the labor force participation gap between men and women, then economies will grow. Across high-income countries, closing this gap could lead to average GDP gains of 12% by 2030. In countries such as Japan and Italy, potential growth rates are as high as 20%.

There are still many challenges: In more than 150 countries, women still lack the protections critical to economic participation –for example, the legal right to own or purchase property or to take out a loan. Women everywhere still are denied equal pay for equal work.

Entrepreneurship is vital to women’s economic participation – but so is their ability to advance into leadership roles in the corporations that play such a big role in the global economy. Just 5% of the Fortune 500 is led by female CEOs today. This is an improvement from 20 years ago, when the number was zero. But it is far from where we need to be.

It is up to all of us – governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector, civil society, and all of us here today – to commit to the work of full participation and ensure a promising future for us all.