When Melinda Gates found that time and time again she was the last one in the kitchen after dinner, finishing off the clearing up, she did not simply wring her hands in frustration—she laid down the law: “Nobody leaves the kitchen until mom leaves the kitchen.” And that was that.
It wasn’t immediately popular with her billionaire husband and three children (“they certainly remember that particular transition,” she says, laughing) but Melinda Gates was adamant that she was not going to pick up more of the slack when it came to household chores simply because she was “mom”.
It is this kind of no-nonsense approach to the division of labour in her own home that she shares with her children Jennifer, Phoebe and Rory, and her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It is at the heart of a letter released late February by the couple in which Melinda calls to redress globally the burden of unpaid work that falls disproportionately on women.
She is, after all, one half of a couple that, aside from being the richest in the world, has put billions of dollars in the past 16 years into changing the lives of disadvantaged people through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So, when Melinda speaks, many listen.
There is a gap, she says, between the amount of time that men and women put into unpaid work. “Whether you are in a western country, where that gap can be 90 minutes, or in the developing world, where there can be a five-hour gap, if we don’t talk about how it robs women of their potential, then we are not really looking at the issue,” she tells me over the phone. “And if we don’t redistribute the work, if we don’t really say, ‘there needs to be a different balance here’, we are not going to get all the way. We are not going to let all women reach their potential all around the world or get the big GDP gains that we want.”
Melinda’s half of the letter is titled ‘More Time’—a nod to the fact that women in developed countries continue to do more unpaid work than men. She believes it is a huge problem that has serious effects on society and the economy. “If we can add $10 trillion to the GDP by looking at the unpaid work that happens at home and really calling it what it is—work—to me it doesn’t make any sense that we’re sitting in 2016 and we’re not labelling it like this,” she says. “Why don’t we call it work and then why don’t we recognise the women who are predominantly doing it?”
Melinda says it is not just an issue for policymakers, but rather something that starts at home. So does Bill pull his weight and do his fair share of household chores? “He’s not much of a cook, but he’s really good at doing dishes,” she says. (Bill admits in the letter that he can do “tomato soup”, but not much else.) And he does the school run, too, inadvertently encouraging other dads at his daughter’s school to follow suit. Mums went home to their husbands and said, “If Bill Gates can drive his daughter to school, so can you.”
Melinda says real change happens only when we address our children’s expectations of their roles in society. That is why the open letter is addressed to not just journalists and politicians, but also schoolchildren. “Even in US households today, boys are 15 per cent more likely to be paid for their chores,” she says. “And they are more likely to be assigned outdoor chores. This absolutely affects everyone and that is why we need to talk to boys and girls about this. You have to change the expectations of boys and girls when they are young, so that they then take those issues up as they get older, start their own careers and have families.”
THE LAST LINE of the letter reads like a direct message to her children: “I can’t wait to see where your steps will lead you. Not necessarily in triangles. Not in straight lines, unless that is what you want. But in any direction you choose.”
Did she write the lines with her children in mind? “I’m writing it to my daughters, to their friends, and to my son and to his friends,” she says. “I imagine a future for them that is even different from the one I have had…. Unless things change, girls today will spend hundreds of thousands more hours than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it’s their responsibility.”
So how do we make the change happen? Melinda says we have to “recognise the problem, reduce it and redistribute it”. She has pledged to lead the charge by exposing these iniquities (“women in developing countries are spending 100 million hours a day just carrying water”) and taking steps to change them in the coming months. One of the primary goals of the Gates foundation is to ensure that women have access to banking services wherever they are in the world. “If they don’t, that leaves them completely out of the economy,” she says.
Melinda did not say who she is rooting for in the US presidential race, but Hillary Clinton would be quite a safe bet. The Clinton Foundation and the Gates foundation have been collaborating on a project called ‘No Ceilings’, which gathers and studies data on the progress of women and girls around the world. Melinda shared a platform with Hillary and her daughter, Chelsea, on International Women’s Day last year to launch the project, which is funded by the Gates foundation.
It is evident that the two women think alike. “I think Hillary is talking about lots of issues in the campaign, which is great,” she says in a measured tone. “She has always talked about things that affect women and girls.”
Melinda is confident that women’s issues will continue to be debated after the presidential campaign. “I think there is a good chance there will be some policy change in the US after this election,” she says. “And I think it is going to happen no matter what. Women are starting to demand it.”
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