In their annual letter laying out their philanthropic priorities and philosophies, Bill and Melinda Gates wrote about two superpowers they wish they (and everyone else) had: more energy and more time. Melinda Gates’ part of the letter focused on the second one, and in particular its relevance to women the world over.
As the wife of Microsoft’s cofounder noted, it’s women who tend to take on most of life’s unpaid work, or all the work that is not formally acknowledged by a society. Most of it happens at home—it’s child-rearing, cooking, cleaning, elder care—and its existence means that women, globally, perform an average of 4.5 hours or more of free work every day.
Even in North America, where the disparity between the unpaid work undertaken by women and by men is the world’s lowest, women do nearly twice as much as men—which plays a significant role in maintaining gender inequality. As Melinda Gates wrote in her portion of the letter, a lot has changed and is changing still, yet there is a real need for things to change further.
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 responsibility.
But as Gates explained in an interview with Quartz (see video above), sometimes, a more equal distribution of unpaid work is just a decision away. As the mother of two young children (a third would come later), Gates decided to leave the workforce, always with the expectation that she would go back when her kids got older. In the meanwhile, she would be the main caretaker for the children. But when it was time to start bringing her eldest daughter to pre-kindergarten, at a school that was a 30-minute drive from their house, she bristled at the idea of spending so much of each school day driving back and forth.
And so her husband, despite having a busy schedule as the then-CEO of Microsoft—located 15 minutes from the Gates’ home, but in the opposite direction—said he would handle drop-off two days a week before heading into the office, helping to at least share in that bit of unpaid work (and getting an hour in the car each week with his daughter, time together many parents can only hope for). Soon enough, other mothers in the school who regularly shouldered drop-off duty, started insisting that their husbands take on a share of the work.
In leading by example, without even meaning to, the couple made a difference in the way their community approached the burden of unpaid work. No doubt other families, even those with considerably lower profiles and smaller fortunes, could have a similar ripple effect in their own communities.