Melinda Gates: A woman to watch

Wall Street Journal flaunts a keen eye for female business acumen.


Rebecca Traister
November 21, 2006 9:55PM (UTC)

Thanks to the Broadsheet reader who alerted us to Monday's Wall Street Journal feature on "Fifty Women to Watch" in business, which begins hopefully by suggesting that "a new crop of women leaders have moved into the corner offices of some of the world's biggest companies."

Despite the Journal's findings that women hold only 16.4 percent of the corporate officer jobs at Fortune 500 companies (just a 0.7 percent increase from 2002) and that women of color hold just 1.5 percent of those jobs, the paper did have good news: that leading businesswomen are no longer relegated to traditionally female companies like cosmetics and retail corporations. These days, the Journal reports, "whether they're already CEOs or in line to lead, women are running operations and devising strategy in virtually every industry, from heavy manufacturing, chemicals and computer technology to consumer products, fashion and media."

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Among these newly minted corporate machers are Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi, Archer Daniels Midland's Patricia Woertz and Naina Lal Kidwai, group general manager and head of HSBC Holdings in India.

But who is the Journal's No. 1 woman to watch, topping Nooyi, Woertz, Kraft's Irene Rosenfeld and Avon's Andrea Jung? It's Melinda Gates, co-founder of the $31.9 billion Gates Foundation, who "oversees an abundance of funding aimed at AIDS and other diseases overseas as well as education and homelessness in the U.S."

Now, Melinda Gates is a worthy and fascinating woman who deserves the recognition she gets. She had a powerful independent career before and after her marriage to Bill Gates and the birth of her children. She controls an immense amount of money, and her choices about what to do with it are dynamic and creative and inspiring. But what puts her on a list like this is that money, which she has at her disposal because she married the man who made it. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, in fact there is everything right with the choices the Gateses have made about what to do with their wealth. But does that fairly make her the very top businesswoman to watch?

There are other things that are a little hinky about the Journal's write-up on Gates, including the assertion that Gates has a mix of "grace and gravitas [that] has tempered the brash image of her tech-tycoon husband, and has eased acceptance of their ambitious agenda for ending health inequities." So basically, her ability to smooth out her husband's rough patches has a lot to do with her No. 1 spot. "Skeptics who initially were turned off by Mr. Gates's reputation for hubris in amassing his software fortune have warmed to Ms. Gates and her humility in helping him give it away." Humility, grace ... Other words used to describe Melinda Gates include "humble" and "soothing."

Melinda Gates' work is remarkable, regardless of whether she's warm and cuddly. She and her husband are battling disease and poverty, and they both work hard on behalf of women, which the Journal acknowledges as a sort of cute trick in its description of their speech at August's XVI International AIDS Conference: "Bucking stereotypes, the couple had decided as they worked on their AIDS Conference speeches that Ms. Gates would focus on science and Mr. Gates on ways to help women, who make up most new HIV cases world-wide." Get it? He acts like he cares about women, and she acts like she knows about science! It's like "Freaky Friday"!

Anyway. Melinda Gates is brilliant and generous and savvy. But there is something off about crowning her the top of the female business heap. As our tipster put it, "She's a philanthropist, not a businesswoman. Perhaps that's the role that the WSJ editors prefer to see women in."

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Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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