Moment of Lift Review

The Moment of Lift: how empowering women changes the world – Melinda Gates

In Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates tells how she, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, morphed from health issues to empowering women.

Three Take Aways: 

I had three great take aways from reading this book:

  1. Improvement science. She describes initiative after initiative and how each initiative led to the next.  And in the end, she concludes, If you want to lift humanity, empower women. 
  2. Changing Culture. Embedded in the initiatives she describes, are many lessons learned that can apply to our social justice efforts in the U.S. – Making change when change is hard.
  3. Stories.  Her stories capture our imagination and moves us closer to action.  Melinda Gates’ stories make the book come alive.  I share just one – Sometimes Your Heart Must Break.

Improvement Science

Immunizations –

Yes immunizations for child health were important.  They saw epidemics of diarrhea that killed countless children.  But, what they found was that contraceptive shots were even more essential for the survival of each child and the entire family. 

Family planning –

Many families in the poorest nations can’t afford the children they have now.  Adding one more may jeopardize the health of the entire family.  Spacing births three years apart doubled the survival rate and made dramatic improvements in student learning along with family health and economics.  It took years to learn that contraceptives were the greatest life-saving, poverty ending, women empowering innovation ever.  And she describes how she worked diligently to build bridges between her faith and family planning that saves lives.

Newborn Health –

Breast feeding, skin-to-skin contact, and sterile cord cutting practices can double child survival … but in some cultures those practices are taboo.  Changing the culture means listening to people, learning what they want, what barriers they face.  Indonesia listened and then hired 60,000 midwives. They cut infant and maternal mortality in half.  One of their partners shares:  The cup is not empty; you can’t just pour your ideas into it.  Their cup is already full, so you have to understand what is in their cup.


Schools improve literacy and lead to higher wages and better health.  But in many cultures, arranged marriages and child brides interrupt education and create dismal futures.  Fighting child marriage is not enough.  We have to change the culture that makes child marriage a smart option for the poorest families.  Again, she describes the importance of listening locally and finding out what communities want most for their children.  Out of those conversations, local actions spring up, changing practices and cultures.  Education lifts girls up, builds self-confidence and gives them voice.

Women’s Work

Much of women’s work is non-monetary.  Gates tells how important it is to include unpaid women’s work in our measures of GDP.  And she tells a compelling story about how women’s agricultural work is ignored – at great cost.  Women do most of the agricultural work.  But men are the ones that researchers and economists talk to.  Women miss out on getting the best land, labor, tools, seeds, and technical expertise.   When they are included, there is a dramatic increase in success and family well-being.  Agriculture is gender worthy but can’t be sold as a gender issue; it sells as an economic issue which strengths families.


Too often we cut to the chase in our improvement stories – Just do this! Gates is so, so transparent in sharing the pitfalls and obstacles and telling how each “aha” led to the next initiative.  And, in the end, lifting women is essential to the success of each of these initiatives.

Changing Culture – Social Justice Lessons Learned

Here are some of the hard won lessons Melinda Gates shares on making change when change is hard.

  • When we come together in [common] cause we are the lift.
  • Anyone can be made to feel like an outsider. Overcoming the need to create outsiders is our greatest challenge as human beings.  Saving lives starts with bringing everyone in.
  • Without empathy we can do little to help. Outrage can save one or two.  Only empathy can change the system.
  • Picking one best approach is deadly – it kills off the good ideas that locals may be able to support. If you think you’re super-smart and you don’t listen to people, you can reach into areas outside your expertise and make bad decisions with big impact.
  • Change comes from inside – not outside through community members talking about actions that are commonly accepted, rarely discussed, often taboo. Conversation accelerates change … when people talk about getting better. Empathy helps end bias.
  • Ask: Who is omitted, disadvantaged?  Who doesn’t have a voice? Isn’t asked?  Who has the least power? The most pain?
  • If people from diverse groups are not making the decisions the burdens and benefits of society will be divided unequally and unfairly … If you are not brought in, you get sold out.
  • We all want to have something to offer. This is how we belong … how we feel included.  So … we have to help everyone develop their talents and use their gifts for the good of the community.
  • Lasting power will not come from a power struggle; it will come from a moral appeal. We have to include everyone, even those who want to exclude us.  Others use power to push people out.  We have to use our power to bring people in.

Story – Let Your Heart Break

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation tried to help with HIV prevention. They found they couldn’t do so without the help of sex workers.  And the sex workers in India were more than willing to help … because it would help them better care for their children.  Gates thought they needed help with condoms.  No, what was needed was help with violence.  If we carry condoms, the police beat us.  If we insist on condoms, clients beat us.  Gates fought mission creep but finally agreed to help create centers/shelters.  The women then created rapid response teams to respond instantly to violence by police or clients.  They were able to reduce HIV by 90%.

We thought we were running an HIV prevention program but we stumbled onto something more effective – the power of women coming together, finding their voices.

Empowerment starts with getting together … and the courage to let ourselves be seen.

  • Reviewed by Larry Nyland
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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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