Last November, in a stunning shareholder resolution, Microsoft stock owners overwhelmingly voted to push the tech giant to publicly report on any investigations into alleged sexual misconduct by its founder, Bill Gates.
“Microsoft is under intense public scrutiny due to numerous claims of sexual harassment and an alleged failure to address them adequately and transparently. Reports of Bill Gates’s inappropriate relationships and sexual advances towards Microsoft employees have only exacerbated concerns…putting at risk the company’s ability to attract and retain talent,” the resolution noted.
This move could bring more transparency to the slough of misconduct allegations that have engulfed Gates in the last year—all of which he, through a spokesperson, has either downplayed or denied. But it also highlights how lightly Gates’s alleged misconduct appears to have been addressed at the Gates Foundation; unlike Microsoft, the foundation has no shareholders to bring accountability.
Over the last year, Bill Gates has been accused of pursuing an unwanted relationship with a woman at the foundation, engaging in an inappropriate relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and overlooking alleged misconduct by the foundation’s money manager—on top of a welter of allegations involving female employees at Microsoft.
The foundation’s press office, its CEO, and cochair Melinda French Gates have remained largely silent as dozens of news reports have emerged. Bill Gates’s personal spokesperson has fielded most questions and issued denials.
This posture may soon change with the foundation’s announcement last week of a new, expanded board of trustees described as “strong, independent voices to help shape our governance” on a foundation press release. The group—a billionaire, a baroness, a professional consultant, and the Gates Foundation’s CEO—includes one woman.
As trustees of the foundation, they now have a legal responsibility for the foundation’s activities. Just as Gates’s alleged misconduct could threaten Microsoft’s value, reputation, and ability to recruit women to its workforce, so, too, could it threaten the Gates Foundation, which has a carefully crafted campaign to support women’s empowerment and gender equity.
This week, for example, the [George] Clooney Foundation for Justice announced a new “gender justice initiative” funded by the Gates Foundation. If allegations against Bill Gates continue to snowball—and especially without a clear response from the foundation—some groups may rethink such partnerships.
“I think they have an obligation to do something,” notes Brian Galle, a law professor at Georgetown. “What the law says is if you’re a board member, and there are reasonable grounds for a person to believe that there’s an issue that would be of concern to an organization, you have to investigate.”
The law doesn’t create a black-and-white requirement, Galle added, “but I do think it’s something that these new board members have to immediately start thinking about.”
In theory, the new board serves to diminish the monopoly power that Bill and Melinda French Gates have as the only two trustees of the foundation, forcing them to share decision-making over the $50 billion private foundation with an independent group of outside actors.
In reality, however, the Gates appear to retain special voting rights as the foundation’s cochairs, which gives them veto power over decision making, according to The New York Times’s reporting. (It’s unclear if that could translate into Bill Gates having the ability to veto investigations into alleged misconduct.)
“That is not a typical board structure,” notes Galle. “It’s a little bit more evidence that they haven’t really embraced the idea of giving up much control.”
One additional concern is that some new board members come from Gates-funded organizations, like Tom Tierney from the nonprofit consulting firm Bridgespan, which has received at least $32 million from the Gates Foundation. It is unclear how the foundation—or taxpayers, who heavily subsidize the foundation—can expect someone in this position to be independent or to challenge Bill Gates.
The other new board members also have ties to the foundation. Baroness Minouche Shafik is director of the London School of Economics, which has received $13 million from the foundation. Strive Masiyiwa, the Zimbabwean telecom billionaire, also based in London, previously served as board chair of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a controversial initiative Gates has funded with at least $678 million.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether Bill Gates, one of history’s most storied monopolists, is capable of sharing power. In Gates’s previous position chairing Microsoft’s board, fellow board member Maria Klawe recounts that he sometimes treated board meetings as a formality, summarily disregarding views that didn’t agree with his own—like her idea of making the workplace more inviting for women.
“They had launched a press release saying how I would help them bring more women…to help diversify Microsoft,” Klawe, who left Microsoft’s board in 2015, told The Nation. “And then when one actually suggested doing something [on the board], it was like absolutely zero openness from Bill.”
As first reported by Business Insider, Klawe says that when she pushed the issue of diversity and women, Gates exploded: “Are you trying to effing destroy my company?”
Gates officially resigned from Microsoft’s board in 2020, with news outlets later reporting that his exit came as the company investigated a relationship he had with an employee. Gates didn’t deny the affair, but a spokesperson at the time said the relationship “ended amicably” and that his “decision to transition off the board was in no way related to this matter.”
Microsoft’s investigations into Gates have been criticized for the unorthodox way they have been conducted, but they at least gesture toward some semblance of accountability. Such gestures are harder to find at the Gates Foundation.
We also see a contrast in the domino of corporate leaders that have fallen following revelations of their ties to Jeffrey Epstein, while Bill Gates does not appear to have faced any professional consequences at the Gates Foundation.
Jes Staley, Leon Black and Leslie Wexner have had to vacate high-profile corporate positions—at Barclays, Apollo Global Management, and L Brands—under intense public pressure about their ties to Epstein.
Similar scrutiny has hounded Gates’s hard-to-explain relationship with Epstein—which lasted several years, included the participation of multiple foundation employees, and began after Epstein’s felony sex offender charge in 2008. When The New York Times revealed that Gates had a far more extensive relationship than he initially disclosed, his spokesperson refused to say how many times the two met.
While these allegations clearly impact the foundation, its press office doesn’t appear to have issued any statements or taken any action, allowing Bill Gates and his spokesperson to take control of the media response, saying the relationship with Epstein was uniquely focused on a charitable partnership that never materialized.
Queries to the foundation’s press office asking for examples of statements it has issued about or action it has taken concerning allegations of Gates’s misconduct did not get a response.
The only public statement The Nation could find on the foundation’s website was a post from foundation CEO Mark Suzman last May, which said the allegations had “created confusion and concern. In that context, I feel it’s important to be very clear that the foundation has never received any allegations of harassment regarding Bill.”
The letter goes on to note that the foundation has created “a variety of pathways” to receive complaints about workplace misconduct, including an anonymous portal.
Suzman, who is one of the new members of the board of trustees, this week reiterated that the foundation had never investigated Gates for misconduct, telling the Associated Press it “never had any complaints or allegations about him.”
For his part, Bill Gates has publicly said he regrets his relationship with Epstein and acknowledged (through his spokesperson) that his relationship served to enhance Epstein’s credibility, giving him “an undeserved platform that was at odds with Gates’s personal values and the values of his foundation.”
What the Gates Foundation doesn’t seem to recognize is that others are starting to question what these values are.
A test of the new board’s independence will be whether it has the mettle to challenge Bill Gates, and to push the kind of accountability that we’re seeing from other large institutions. In a world in which big tech and big finance—industries that are renowned for questionable behavior—increasingly appear to have a surer moral compass than the world’s leading humanitarian organization, it’s hard to see how a legitimate, independent board could do anything else.