Melinda Gates -- "very smart"

A New York Times profile on Melinda Gates seems surprised by her intellect and determination.

Published July 6, 2006 6:22PM (EDT)

A profile of Melinda Gates in today's New York Times sets out to explain how, as partner of the world's largest, most high-profile foundation, she "is far more than a name at the door." But, in the Times' attempt to show Gates' deep involvement in and knowledge of health and education inequities in the U.S. and abroad (two of the Gates Foundation's chief causes), it winds up underscoring her status as wife-of.

"In televised appearances announcing the [Warren Buffet] donation," the Times writes, "Ms. Gates held her own as self-confident, articulate and knowledgeable." Is it particularly noteworthy that she is all of these things given that she co-founded a billion-dollar foundation and is ultimately responsible, with her husband, for choosing its causes? Perhaps Bono received similar credit for actually knowing what he was talking about while organizing Live 8, but it does seem a bit out of touch that Gates -- a former Microsoft executive who has an MBA from Duke -- should be recognized as "holding her own."

The Times writes that Gates is "by all accounts  instinctively more at ease than her husband at some stops on their foundation tours abroad, like holding and hugging babies with AIDS in Africa or talking with male sex workers in India in an H.I.V.-prevention program." Although former foundation officials tell the Times that portraying "Mr. Gates as the analytic strategist and Ms. Gates as the humanizing influence, the nurturing woman, would be a stereotypical distortion of their partnership," that is more or less what the article does throughout.

While Mr. Gates is very much in the public eye, Ms. Gates has kept a low profile in part to "ensure that she has ample time for her children." And commenting on how the Gateses work together, a friend told the Times, "Mr. Gates enjoyed the give-and-take with intellectual peers to test ideas, debate, even lose arguments if it meant seeing things in a new light." And, he added, "Melinda is very smart."

To be fair, a profile is shaped by whom the reporter speaks to, and given that Ms. Gates declined to be interviewed and no one at the foundation would speak on record, there was only so much to learn. Still, it is frustrating when women are lauded for that which is expected of men.

As the Gates Foundation continues to champion disease treatment and educational equity, we look forward to hearing more about Ms. Gates' role. And we hope Bill can hold his own.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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