What billionaire philanthropists get wrong about empowering women

Mega-donors tend to focus on private solutions as the only ways to address social problems.
Mega-donors tend to focus on private solutions as the only ways to address social problems.
Image: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Billionaire philanthropists have some misguided ideas about how best to empower women. To understand the problem, one need look no further than the annual letter released by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on Feb. 22.

Each Gates highlighted a global issue they plan to tackle during the upcoming year, with Melinda’s portion focusing on the unpaid labor that leads to “time poverty” for women. Around the world, she writes, women continue to perform the vast majority of unpaid labor. This puts girls and women at a disadvantage, with less time to devote to studying, paid work, socializing, and taking care of their own health and happiness.

Melinda’s message resonated strongly with first-world audiences, receiving laudatory write-ups in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Time Magazine. She did perform a valuable service by pointing out the prevalence of gendered inequality worldwide. But her letter also highlights the central blind spot of the brand of feminism endorsed by the philanthro-capitalist class. In focusing on private and technological solutions as the only ways to address social problems, they ignore the policy changes that are necessary to correct gendered inequality. Paid leave and state-subsidized health care and childcare are chief among those changes.

In her letter, Melinda Gates proposes that in order to fix female time poverty, “we” must abide by the three R’s: “Recognize that unpaid work is still work. Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And Redistribute it more evenly between women and men.”

Gates makes these goals sound achievable, but remains vague about the process by which the changes might come about. Meanwhile, she alludes only in passing to the one measure that has actually been shown to reduce gendered inequality in providing care work:

“Though no country has gotten the balance perfect yet, many have narrowed the unpaid labor gap by several hours a day. America and Europe have come a long way. The Scandinavian countries have gone even further.”

What’s so special about Scandinavia? Gates says nothing further about how they’ve worked toward closing the unpaid labor gap. But The New York Times spells it out:

“Redistributing more unpaid work to men can happen through policies, like paid family leave. Women are more likely to return to work after having a baby when they have paid leave, and men who take paternity leave spend more time on child care later.”

Yet Gates never once mentions public policy in her letter. Trained by the nature of their success to believe in the strength of the private sector, mega-donors don’t consider the role that governments might play in promoting the equality and well-being of their citizens. For them, private and technological solutions are always best.

They stick to this line of thinking even when capitalist interventions have been shown to be useless—or to make women’s conditions worse. See, for example, this 2014 paper by development economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, demonstrating that micro-loans to women in Hyderabad, India, had no effect on their economic status after two years. Yet micro-loans continue to be championed by everyone from Hillary Clinton to Bono as an effective way to help the poor.

Nor is technology a cure-all for poverty. The New York Times later asked Gates to be more concrete about steps that her foundation could take in order to reduce the gap in unpaid work. She named two possible steps: “providing contraceptives and cell phones,” along with broader “cultural change.”

Contraceptives can absolutely give women more choice over how much reproductive labor they take on—at least in communities where they can use contraceptives without meeting resistance or violence. And it’s true that technology can help reduce drudge work. But the possibilities offered by cell phones are ultimately limited.

Paraphrasing Gates, the Times explains that cell phones can help women “access information like a clinic’s vaccine supply or the price of a crop.” Yet by itself, access to such information does very little to reduce gendered inequality. As Gates acknowledges in her letter, “If tasks start taking less time, societies can (and do) simply assign women more tasks to fill up the time they’re deemed to have available.”

In fact, in her classic 1983 study, More Work for Mother, technology historian Ruth Cowan shows that this is exactly what has happened throughout much of American history. During the 1950s, that heyday of housewife-friendly appliances, the hours that women spent cooking, cleaning, and tending to their homes every week actually increased. Postwar prosperity and Mad Men-era advertising made the standards for cleanliness shoot up. And in the isolation of suburban homes, women found that their chores took longer and longer to complete.

If women are going to enjoy equal opportunities to flourish and prosper, they need a lot more than cell phones. They need policies that value the work of care, and thus incentivize both men and women to do it. These include not only paid leave, but also state-subsidized childcare and health care and allowances for children.

Such provisions are not handouts. They are compensation that women earn. It’s no accident that we call childbirth “labor.” By bearing and raising children, women have always contributed to GDP in measurable ways. They reproduce and care for the existing work force, even when they are also doing paid work themselves. The fact that the market does not know how to price this work does not mean that it is not valuable.

Capitalist markets will always treat certain resources as “externalities”—standing reserves that they can appropriate and use for free. For example, many companies have historically treated the environment as if natural materials, or land and waterways that they pollute, as simply free for the taking. In recent decades, governments have recognized that environmental depletion and pollution do in fact come at a great cost to society and the biosphere we share. Because markets cannot price this destruction, many countries have introduced a carbon tax. Such policies reflect the fact that the private sector cannot value every element of the world accurately. We might think of subsidies to mothers the same way.

Without support for policies that actually value women’s unpaid labor, the plans of the philanthro-capitalists to “empower” women to seek paid work start to look pretty sinister. The language of personal empowerment and responsibility celebrates capitalist self-reliance and free markets, with the suggestion that women are most important because they function as reserves of value that have yet to be properly optimized. If we buy into this narrative, we risk treating women as just one more natural resource to be used up.