Arguably one of the most powerful things Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates has ever done had nothing to do with computers or his charitable foundation.
Back when he was chief executive of Microsoft, Gates drove his daughter to preschool twice a week because his wife Melinda needed his support, she told The New York Times in an interview published Monday.
Gates is the richest person in the world. The company he helped found revolutionized personal computing, and he is now making huge strides in alleviating poverty and curing disease. But back then, he set a powerful example for other working parents in his neighborhood.
“Moms started going home and saying to their husbands, ‘If Bill Gates can drive his daughter, you better darn well drive our daughter or son,’” Melinda Gates told the Times. “If you’re going to get behavior change, you have to role-model it publicly.”
In the U.S., all the power, prestige and kudos go to the people, like Bill Gates, with the fancy jobs, elite pedigrees and, of course, the most Twitter followers. But Melinda Gates is now drawing attention to a huge group of people for whom our respect and support are long overdue: the many women, and increasing numbers of men, who take on the unpaid work that makes the economy function.
“We need to call work what it is -- work -- whether you do it at home or whether you do it out in the labor force, and then give men and women options to choose what they want to do,” Melinda Gates writes in her annual letter addressing priorities of the Gates Foundation, published Tuesday morning.
These are the people who spend hours upon hours tending to children and to aging relatives, ferrying them to doctor’s appointments and school, managing schedules and preparing meals. It is overwhelmingly women who do this unpaid work, she says, pointing to some astonishing statistics. Gates calls this “the gender gap no one is talking about.”
In developing countries, the costs of the unpaid labor gap are devastating. Women and girls spend an extra five or more hours a day on chores, at the expense of their own education, she writes. The burden of unpaid work is one reason that women are less likely to learn how to read. And without an education or even basic literacy, women and their children are more likely to end up in poverty.
The overwhelming responsibilities of unpaid work also keep women out of the paid labor force and hold back economies from growth. This is an issue in developing countries and in places like the U.S., where women’s participation in the labor market has been stalled for years.
The effects of the unpaid labor gap are less harsh in our own country, but still worthy of our attention. Thanks to technology, we all do fewer hours of unpaid work than those in developing nations. But women still spend nearly double what men do on chores and child care, working about four hours a day.
This burden is a driving factor behind the gender pay gap. In high-paying professions, women who are faced with the dual pressures of work and family responsibilities trade pay for home-work, as Harvard economist Claudia Goldin recently explained in an interview with HuffPost. At the lower end of the economy, women may wind up in poverty in an attempt to care for children and earn a living.
One big way to change this inequity is for men to pick up the slack and more equitably share in the burden of unpaid work, Gates writes.
“We must recognize that unpaid work is still work,” she writes. “And redistribute more evenly between women and men.”
Men increasingly want to do more at home. Millennial fathers are looking for companies that offer them the flexibility they need to more fully participate in their children’s lives. And some progressive companies are paying attention.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg made a point to take paternity leave, driving home the message that fathers should take time to be at home when they have a new child.
And many fathers are now choosing to stay home and look after their children, joining the unpaid labor force.
We could all do well to remember that the work of raising kids is extremely important -- even though we so often get the message that paid work is somehow more worthy of acclaim.
Public policy also plays a huge role. For example, research has shown that men who take paternity leave wind up doing more child care work down the line.
We could also offer more support to those caring for children, including subsidized daycare or even extending the school day so parents can get more done.
So much of the coverage of gender equality focuses on inequities at work, but Gates’ letter is a powerful reminder that we need equality at home, too. Until this happens, women will not catch up anywhere. And men will lose out on the very real rewards of caretaking. (Or vice-versa!)
“Economists call it opportunity cost: the other things women could be doing if they didn’t spend so much time on mundane tasks,” Gates writes. “It’s obvious that many women would spend more time doing paid work, starting businesses, or otherwise contributing to the economic well-being of societies around the world. The fact that they can’t holds their families and communities back."