Because I am Mom
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
didn't simply wring her hands in frustration, she laid down the law:
"Nobody leaves the kitchen until mom leaves the kitchen." And that was
Melinda Gates Pic source AP
Sure, it wasn't immediately popular with her billionaire husband and
three children ("they certainly remember that particular transition,"
she says, roaring with laughter) but 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's this kind of no-nonsense approach to the division of labour in
her own home - which she shares with her children Jennifer, Phoebe and
Rory and her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates - that is at the
heart of a letter released last week by the couple in which Melinda
calls for the burden of unpaid work that falls disproportionately on
women to be redressed globally.
She is, after all, one half of a couple which, 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 women put
into unpaid work compared to men. "Whether you're 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're not really looking at the issue," she tells
me animatedly on 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're not going to get all
the way. We're not going to let all women reach their potential all
around the world or get the big GDP gains that we want."
For Gates, whose half of the letter is titled 'More Time', a nod to
the fact that women in developed countries continue to take on moredaily
unpaid work than men - which is totally unacknowledged. She believes
this is a huge problem which has serious knock on effects on society and
"If we can add 10 trillion dollars 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.
"Why don't we call it work and then why don't we recognise the women
who are predominantly doing it?" she asks, her frustration evident.
It is, she says, not just an issue for policy makers - though she has
been encouraged to see topics such as paid family medical leave crop up
on "both sides of the aisle" during the US presidential campaign - but
rather something which starts in the 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 reveals (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 after the
mums went home to their husbands and said: "if Bill Gates can drive his
daughter to school, so can you".
But as well as unpaid labour in the home being an issue for couples
to discuss openly - Gates is adamant that real change only happens when
we address our children's expectations of their roles in society. That's
why this joint Bill and Melinda Gates open letter is addressed not to
the journalists and politicians looking to see what the world's richest
couple will turn their attentions to next, but rather to America's
school children and, one imagines, her own. "Even in US households today
boys are 15 per cent more likely to be paid for their chores," she says,
"and they're more likely to be assigned outdoor chores. This absolutely
affects everyone and that is why we need to talk to boys and girls about
"You have to change boys and girls' expectations when they're young
so that they then take those issues up as they get older and start their
own careers and start to have a family."
Women working at home- schwabepharma.co.uk
The last line reads like a direct message to her kids: "I can't wait
to see where your steps will lead you. Not necessarily in triangles. Not
in straight lines, unless that's what you want. But in any direction you
choose." Did she write with them 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've had. And I've been incredibly lucky, so lucky as a woman. And yet
we're not far enough in the United States.
"I know from listening to my kids and their friends-and from looking
at polling data about how teenagers see the future-that most girls don't
think they will be stuck with the same rules that kept their
grandmothers in the home. And most boys agree with them.
"I'm sorry to say this, but if you think that, you're wrong. Unless
things change, girls today will spend hundreds of thousands more hours
than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it's their
So how do we do make this happen? According to Gates, 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 foundation's primary
goals is to ensure 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 tells me.
In our telephone conversation, Gates won't be drawn on who she is
rooting for in the US presidential race - a wall seems to come up when I
ask her about it - but Hillary would be a pretty 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. Gates shared a platform with Clinton
and her daughter Chelsea on International Women's Day last year to
launch the project (which was funded by the Gates Foundation) and lay
out key goals to help gain equal rights and participation in all levels
of society for women.
It's 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 always has, her entire career, talked about
things that affect women and girls."
But Gates is confident that women's issues will continue to be
debated after this presidential campaign. "I think there's a good chance
there will be some policy change in the United States after this
election," she says. "And I think it's going to happen no matter what.
Women are starting to demand it."