A woman walks into a bar and asks for gender equality. “Coming right up!” says the bartender, and disappears. He returns, 208 years later. “Sorry,” he tells the woman, “I had to go down to the cellar and change the global paradigm.”
Drawing attention to gender equality by making light of it is the goal of “Equality Can’t Wait,” a new campaign launched by philanthropist Melinda Gates this week. In a video that accompanies the launch, a host of American comedians riff on the fact that, at current rates of change as measured by the World Economic Forum, US women won’t gain equality with men for another 208 years.
Gates’ campaign calls specifically on stand-up comics to bring the power of their humor to bear on the gender equality issue, recording short videos and tweeting them on the hashtag #EqualityCantWait. (As of writing, no such videos had been shared via Twitter.)
Gates’ campaign is an incentive to shake up a public conversation that is frequently frustrating. The discourse around gender equality—in which the same issues get discussed, and the same good intentions voiced, but little progress is made—can be exasperating. It can also be boring, even for those who care about it most, to keep banging on about pay gaps, pipeline problems, and parental leave, while at the same time witnessing only incremental change.
“I think comedians can sometimes speak the truth to society about the things that are truly going on and that we don’t want to face,” Gates told The Hollywood Reporter. “By bringing humor they…open people’s eyes, but they also hit you squarely between the eyes.”
The campaign’s request that participating comedians stick to a specific message runs the risk of hilarious responses to the prompt being smothered. Its guidelines stipulate that their joke or set should be about “why gender equality can’t wait,” and asks for swear words to be avoided or bleeped out. A list of “thought starters” for comedians on the site also makes for heavy reading. It points out, for example, that the US “has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world,” while “Black and Native American women are three times more likely than other women to die in childbirth.”
The five-minute video accompanying the campaign’s launch, directed by actress Natasha Lyonne, begins on a light note but tips by the end into delivering a sobering message.
Nevertheless, Gates’ campaign has a chance of helping to speed up change, not least because it puts another nail in the coffin of a worn-out stereotype: That women aren’t funny, and that bringing up inequality somehow shows them up as humorless. Female comedians have stormed the US market in the past few years, including Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Nicole Byer, Tina Fey, and Maya Rudolph (some of whom appear in the video.)
Gates’ campaign could provide a showcase for up-and-coming comedians of any gender to be seen and heard and, hopefully, to use humor to engage a wider audience than the section of society that already gets the joke.
Sign up for the Quartz Daily Brief, our free daily newsletter with the world’s most important and interesting news.
More stories from Quartz: