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Melinda Gates: “Our economies all over the world are built on the backs of women’s unpaid labor”

In her new book, Moment of Lift, Gates shows the how society benefits when “a woman gets her full voice and her full decision-making authority.”

Melinda Gates: “Our economies all over the world are built on the backs of women’s unpaid labor”
[Photo: Gates Archive]

Melinda Gates has a confession to make: Bill and their kids weren’t always particularly good at cleaning up fairly. Years ago, the rule at the Gates house was that everyone helps do the dishes after dinner. But Melinda realized that she was always the last to leave the kitchen because, it seemed, some chores were being almost willfully ignored.

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So she made a new rule. “I said, ‘Nobody leaves the kitchen until Mom leaves the kitchen,'” she tells Fast Company. “And guess what? That extra 15 or 20 minutes of work got done really quickly in less than five minutes by five people redistributing the workload.” Gates understands that this anecdote is somewhat privileged (the dishes not being done is a small problem, especially for a billionaire), but her larger point is that it represents a major problem with cultural dynamics, one that has far more dire consequences as you move down the prosperity ladder.

In most U.S. homes, women do about 90 minutes more unpaid labor per day than their husbands. In the developing world, it’s substantially more, although the rate varies by country. In some places, that labor can take up most of a day and, as a result, shortchange a community’s ability to make economic and social progress. Gates knows this because she’s seen that happen firsthand, while shadowing Maasai villagers in Tanzania to better understand the impact of gender inequality and ways to shift the imbalance. “Our economies all over the world are built on the backs of women’s unpaid labor. And so we’ve got to recognize it. We’ve got to look at how to reduce it, and we definitely have to redistribute it in our homes.”

[Image: Gates Archive]

That’s one of the core messages in Moment of Lift, Gates’s new book designed around a potentially hashtag-worthy catchphrase, much like #LeanIn or the #MeToo movement (as the book’s subtitle declares, it’s all about, “How Empowering Women Changes The World.”) But what exactly is a #MomentOfLift? “When a woman gets her full voice and her full decision-making authority in any place–a home, her community, or her workplace–that’s a moment of lift,” Gates says. “And it often takes another person to help her, other women to band together with her. Or it takes a man to speak up on her behalf or to open his power network to her. But when other people help women move forward with their voice and their full decision-making authority, those are moments of lift.”

Those bad social norms often contribute directly to poverty. Moment of Lift is about Gates’s prescription to change that, both personally and globally. First, through Gates’s own firsthand account of things that improved her life and marriage, she shares details like the kitchen episode, illustrating her quest for equal footing alongside her billionaire, Microsoft-founding husband. Each anecdote is supported by facts: When fathers take on 40% of the household work, studies show they lower their risk of depression, while their children do better on tests and see themselves more positively. For those seeking U.S. workplace parables, she covers what it was like to be the first female MBA hired at the boys’ club of Microsoft.

Second, the book is full of case studies on people that Gates has met through her work co-chairing the Gates Foundation, which battles poverty throughout the world. Those tales show how targeted efforts toward gender equality have led to more equity and improved the surrounding community.

Take that village in Maasai. As she writes in the book, she met a woman there named Anna, whose daily duties involved chopping wood, carrying fresh water home from miles away, and cooking for hours before cleaning up under the stars–and then doing it all again the next day. Once her son was born, Anna decided she had to leave the village for a larger community with better resources. “She said, ‘I can’t do all these chores. I can’t walk all these miles to get water and feed our son and cook.'” Starting over seemed impractical, too, so her husband began gathering water for her, and after other men joined him, they all realized how terrible the task was. Anna’s moment of lift led to the village digging their own water pan–a large depression capable of capturing rainfall–so they could have an additional resource. It saved everyone time, helped with farming, and radically improved quality of life for everyone.

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“These are not the soft issues,” she says. “These are the issues that, if you invest in women, we know from good data, they invest in everybody else. [These] are the issues that lift up societies and economies.” Among other topics called out in the book, Gates focuses on giving women better access to contraception, education, and financial empowerment. When women in developing countries can control how often they get pregnant, they can better space out when they’re having kids so the family can practically afford and care for them. At least three years apart is a proven guideline–at that point, newborns are twice as likely to reach their first birthday, and 35% more likely to reach the age of 5. On the educational front, sending girls to school is correlated with building the overall brain trust of a community, leading to higher wages for women and more prosperity in the region as a whole. It increases the chance that those women will marry later, and have more control over when or whether they’ll have children.

Other stories in the book show how even data collection about change making is “completely sexist,” she says. Many surveys attempting to measure quality of life don’t specifically solicit women’s opinions or provide safe spaces for them to voice their complaints. Because of that, they may end up measuring the wrong factors for societal improvement: In places where mobile money transfers are considered a smart intervention, for instance, parsing exactly where the money goes within the family is important. “If we don’t look at women’s income and we don’t look at [their] access to those digital bank accounts and how to make sure she has her own account, we are missing a gigantic opportunity, because women have assets and they need to secure them.”

Gates shares anecdotally about how they’ve noticed that when women and men have disposable income, women often spend it more wisely. They’re the ones who think to save for health emergencies, school fees, and as that balance grows, so does their influence at the kitchen table. “Let’s be honest, money is power, even in a couple’s relationship,” Gates says. To that end, the Gates Foundation has gotten better about including women in things like seed distribution programs after realizing that they not only often farm different crops than men, but think more practically about yields. “They are the ones who are cooking the food, and they will tell you if you come out with a different variety of, say, a vegetable, but it takes me longer to cook, ‘I’m not going to plant it because I don’t have more time than the five or six hours I already spend cooking a day,'” she says.

But Moment of Lift isn’t meant to be a road map for smarter philanthropy. Its focus is on showing how important it is for everyone to support social progress and empowerment. “What I’m trying to do is get people to see that there are really three places they should look in their lives and ask themselves honestly, ‘Do you have equality?'” Gates says: At home, within the workplace, and within your own community. She wants people to start auditing the balance of unpaid labor at home, and push for equal representation and wage parity at work, along with enough of the sort of codified policies that ensure such transparency and fair advancement. She hopes that more people will be proactive about supporting community leaders who believe in ideas like a universal paid family medical leave policy (the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world not to have one), and most broadly supporting the continuance of U.S. foreign aid, a proven way to help others abroad while ensuring better health, security, and prosperity around the world as needy places stabilize and can support themselves.

“I want people to look in their communities and say, ‘Look, I want to vote for somebody who truly believes in equality, who will put [those] policies forward,'” Gates adds. “Between the MeToo Movement, [and] the number of women running for Congress in the midterm election, we have this window of opportunity that’s open, but it’s not guaranteed to stay open,” she says. “And so I want to make sure we call people to action so we get far more equality for women around the globe.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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