‘The more time a woman spends keeping a home, the less she has to go to school, earn an income, be politically active’
Melinda Gates is a philanthropist and businesswoman. She shares with Renuka Bisht the ideas in her new book, ‘The Moment of Lift: How empowering women changes the world’.
Why is it critical to fix the gender imbalance in unpaid work?
Unpaid work is what economists call the often-invisible work that keeps a family and household running – tasks like cooking, cleaning, caregiving. In some places, it also includes strenuous, labour-intensive tasks like gathering water and firewood. Everywhere in the world, women do more unpaid work than men do. There is no country where the gap is zero.
The reason that’s so concerning is that the more time a woman is expected to spend keeping a home, the less time she has to spend on other important things – like going to school, earning an income, or becoming politically active. For those reasons, unequal unpaid work blocks a woman’s path to empowerment.
It’s absolutely true that some unpaid work is extremely tender and meaningful – like caring for children or loved ones. Redistributing this work will not only give women more time to do other things; it will also give men more time to spend caregiving.
Aren’t men who share caregiving duties happier?
Absolutely. There’s data to back that up. One study of US families found that fathers who take on at least 40% of childcare responsibilities have a lower risk for depression and drug abuse, and their kids have higher test scores, more self-esteem, and fewer behavioural problems.
I have anecdotal evidence of this from my own household, too. When Bill started driving our kids to school a few days a week, he found that he really enjoyed that special time together. It’s a chance to have conversations with your kids that you might otherwise not have.
As a side note, after Bill started driving, we also noticed a lot more other dads at carpool. One of the moms told me that the women went home and said to their husbands, “If Bill Gates has time to drive his kids to school, you do, too.” And I bet there were other dads who found it just as joyful as Bill did.
In your own marriage, how did you climb towards an equal partnership?
Bill was CEO of Microsoft for a long time. He’s someone who’s used to being the boss. But that’s not the dynamic that either one of us wanted at home.
I try to be honest in the book about the fact that our partnership hasn’t always lived up to our aspirations for it. When we had our first child, we were in two very different places. Bill was beyond busy at Microsoft, and I’d recently left my job to be a full-time mom. I was no longer the computer science business executive. I was a woman with a small child and a husband who was travelling a lot. He had his sphere, and I had mine. And that’s not always a recipe for equality.
After our youngest child, Phoebe, was born and I decided to take on a public role at our foundation, that dynamic started to change. I’d been very involved in the foundation since the beginning, but most of my work had been done behind-the-scenes. The decision to take on an equal public role in the foundation’s work helped Bill and me find more equality at home, too. And like I said, that’s what we both wanted all along.
How can women’s empowerment revitalise agriculture?
When our foundation was just a few years old, an agriculture expert warned one of my colleagues, “If the foundation doesn’t pay attention to the gender differences in agriculture, you will do what many others have done in the past, which is waste your money. The only difference will be you’ll waste a lot more.”
That was an important wake-up call for us. I’m embarrassed to say it now, but at the time, I wasn’t thinking much about gender inequalities in connection to our agriculture work. As it turns out, that meant we were missing opportunities to maximise our results.
A landmark 2011 study from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization showed that women farmers in developing countries achieve 20-30% lower yields than men. That’s because women farmers face a lot of barriers that men don’t.
A successful farmer requires a lot of things – including good land, good seeds and animals, helping hands, tools, time and knowhow – and most women farmers don’t have equal access to any of them. If we want to close the gender gap in agriculture, we have to change that. If women farmers aren’t able to reach their full potential, agriculture as a whole isn’t either.
In the formal workplace, what advice do you give women who in trying to fit in, only feel like they are strengthening the culture that makes them feel like they don’t fit in?
This is something I have some personal experience with. When I joined Microsoft in 1987, I was the only woman in my hiring class and often the only woman in the room. The culture could be pretty brash. I wasn’t sure that I fit in – and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. I considered quitting, but I decided that before I did, I was going to try just being myself – developing my own leadership style instead of emulating the leaders I saw around me. And guess what: It worked. It worked for me, and it worked to bring the best out of the people I managed.
What I would tell a woman in that situation is that I believe she will succeed because of who she is, not in spite of it. I would also tell her to surround herself with people who will encourage her and believe in her.
Oppressive cultures – workplace and otherwise – like to say that outsiders are the problem. That’s usually not true. It’s the urge to treat some people as outsiders that’s problematic.
AI revolution is coming but are women writing the code?
That’s such an important question, and I wish I had a different answer for you. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Statistically speaking, they’re not. At least not at rates anywhere near parity. According to one estimate, women comprise only 15% of the AI workforce in the US.
The lack of diversity in AI is part of the reason why we’re seeing the creation of biased AI systems, like the Amazon recruiting tool that taught itself that male job candidates are preferable to women candidates or new image recognition technology that doesn’t recognise users with darker skin. AI is going to become more and more prevalent in our daily lives. And that means that biased AI will impact a lot more people.
The good news is that venture capital funding for AI reached record levels in 2018, and, as more money is invested, companies have the opportunity to address the crisis before it gets any worse. Companies need to be thinking about creating more pathways into AI for more diverse groups – across gender, race, age – and then supporting them once they get there.
This is actually a priority issue of mine. I’m investing in it because AI is just too important to humanity’s future for us to sit by and hope the problem solves itself.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.