The Lenny Interview: Melinda Gates

The renowned philanthropist on the gender gap in unpaid labor and why poverty is sexist. 

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While I edited this interview, my husband was folding our laundry and my daughter was running around our apartment in one continuous, galloping loop. I mention this because our domestic, egalitarian Sunday illustrates something Melinda Gates, the philanthropist and cofounder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been talking about lately: the gender gap in unpaid labor. It's something she addressed in her 2016 annual letter — the fact that women spend more time on domestic duties than men do in every country in the world. 

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In developed countries, this gap prevents women from advancing in the workplace (see above: if my husband weren't folding the laundry and watching our kid do laps, I would not be able to fit this work in). In developing countries, where the gap is a chasm, it prevents girls from doing their homework and their mothers from getting adequate health care. As Gates puts it in her annual letter:

"Housework comes first, so girls often fall behind in school. Global statistics show that it's increasingly girls, not boys, who don't know how to read. Mothers might say they'd go to the doctor. In poor countries, moms are usually responsible for their kids' health. But breastfeeding and traveling to the clinic take time, and research shows that health care is one of the first tradeoffs women make when they're too busy."

I spoke to Gates over the phone, appropriately, on International Women's Day, about strategies to combat the unpaid-labor gap, why cell phones are a key factor in women's economic development, and why "poverty is sexist."

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Jessica Grose: How do you choose what projects the foundation focuses on? 

Melinda Gates: We start with an economic approach. We look at what are the greatest causes of death in the developing world, and what causes the largest amount of disability, which would prevent you from getting a job. A lot of those deaths start with diseases, diseases we don't get in such a great number in the United States. 

We go down that list of deaths and say: Where could we intervene? What new tools, what new research, science, medicines, and vaccines or tools like a bed net, could actually affect the disease and bring the deaths down? What can we do to galvanize the global community toward the goal? 

The biggest killers of children around the world are two things: diarrhea and pneumonia. When you think about it, in the United States, kids don't die of diarrhea anymore, but it's a huge problem in the developing world. 

JG: We'd love to hear about your career trajectory before you got involved with the foundation.

MG: I went to Duke University. I was there for three years. My undergraduate work was in computer science and economics. It just happened to be at that time when 34 percent of computer-science majors were women.* We didn't realize it was at the peak at the time. Then I went to business school, and I went straight from that to a nine-year career at Microsoft. Eventually, I ran a big chunk of the consumer products division for Microsoft.

Then I left with the birth of our first daughter because Bill and I both wanted to have a few kids. He wanted me to stay working at Microsoft, but I didn't think he could be CEO and we could have the family life that we both had growing up, which is what we envisioned. I knew I would go back to work at some point later to some profession. I just didn't know what. 

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Then, as we got going on the foundation 15 years ago, I started to pick up work. We started to make decisions about what we'd invest in. Then I actually started traveling for the foundation. My first trip to India was about 15 years ago, and I leave tomorrow to go to India again. I've probably been to India now eight times at least and Africa numerous times. 

JG: That's a great segue into a topic you've been talking and writing about lately: women's unpaid labor. In every country in the world, women do more domestic labor than men do. But the disparity varies pretty drastically from country to country. In India, women are doing almost 6 hours of chores a day, while men do just about 1, whereas in Norway, women and men are much closer to parity — women do 3.6 hours of chores daily to men's 3.1. Each culture is so different. What kind of strategy could get men doing more unpaid labor in Mumbai, and how would that differ from a strategy that could work in Oslo or Seattle?

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MG: Recognizing first that it's a global problem is important. I would love to see us measure unpaid labor as part of gross domestic product worldwide. There's no reason that we don't. It's one of those hidden, root inequities. Our economies are built on the backs of all this unpaid labor that women do. I would start there.

Then I would say, we have to look at it country by country. In places like the developing world where, as you say, in Mumbai, it's about five hours' gap between what a woman does and a man does. You have to start by recognizing the problem and talking about it, trying to change those roles. But you also have to introduce labor-saving devices. Like in Africa, if somebody doesn't have fuel, they're still going and collecting firewood. If they get an oven, that's a huge difference. You can do things to reduce the inequities by making sure that they can get clean energy, safe energy. To make sure they're not having to collect water every day. That's huge for women in the developing world.

Then in a place like the United States, it's more policy. There's just no reason we don't have a great family-paid-leave act here in the United States. There's different ways you can get at that, whether at the state level or the federal level. We also ought to recognize that unpaid labor falls predominantly to women. The other thing I would do in countries like the U.S. is to show more men, even in TV ads, doing household work. Only two percent of ads show men doing chores, and yet we know they actually do several hours of it in real life. Those images affect young boys and girls. 

JG: In the developing world, education and the economic empowerment of women is important not just for the health and happiness of women, but also for the outcomes of their children and communities. I know the foundation has done so much work on women's empowerment. Where are you seeing the most progress? Where are more resources needed?

MG: Around the world we have girls in primary school at about the same rate now as boys, but keeping them in quality secondary schools is where the world is lagging. I'm seeing a lot of countries look at this now. I go to places like the U.N., and the prime ministers and presidents are finally talking about it and are interested in investing in girls' education.

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With economic opportunity, sometimes it's making sure that if they're not in a place where they can have good jobs, that when they have economic opportunity, they have digital tools to use. As a woman finds economic opportunity, even if she's only earning a couple of dollars a day, if she can save it on her phone, she then makes different decisions for her household than her husband might. 

In the developing world, they don't have smartphones yet. They have the older plastic phones, but women are saving money on those, because they don't have access to banks. Having that access to digital money changes everything for her because she actually doesn't have to negotiate with her husband, which she will tell you is very hard in these circumstances, especially when the means are meager. She's expected to have money to pay for the kids' health or to help with the school fees. She only wants to negotiate with him once if he's in control of the finances. But if she can save little bits of money that she gets over the course of the year, then she doesn't have to negotiate with him multiple times. She can take that money and invest it in her kids in different ways.

Now, as smartphones are coming up, there are all kinds of apps that will start to be developed that will help women. We're even seeing on the old phones information about crop prices at markets. With this info, if she gives her crops to a middle man and he takes them to market, he can't say to her, "Well, I only got five dollars a bushel for your corn," and in fact he got ten and he's taking her for a ride. In places like India with smartphones, there's an app now for women if they're in a violent situation, they can press one button. They've given their cell-phone number to five trusted friends, and right away their GPS location goes out: "Here I am." 

JG: That's incredible! Besides education and being able to save money, what other issues are huge for women and girls globally in this moment? Is there anything else that we haven't discussed that your foundation is working to ameliorate?

MG: Women and girls face a whole host of issues. We start with health, so we work very deeply on maternal deaths, making sure that a mom doesn't die in childbirth, making sure that she has access, for instance, to AIDS medication. 

We also look at farming. Are we making sure that we're getting the latest seeds out to women so they can get a bigger yield off of their farms? A new type of seed that gets out to a man, let's say, that's drought resistant — because, of course, the rains are changing in Africa with climate change — if you don't put it in the hands of a woman, she won't necessarily get it. We look at breaking down all those barriers.

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Even in decision-making, we work in self-help groups. That is women coming together in small groups of 10 to sometimes 15 women, where they start to get education about their rights, about clean water and sanitation, about how to have a healthy birth. You can bring in all kinds of education to them that way. 

JG: How does it feel when issues you work on, like vaccination or contraception, become politicized in the United States? Does that impede the work you do in any way?

MG: I haven't even talked about family planning yet. The biggest pieces of work that we do are vaccines, because those save lives, and also family planning. Because if a woman can space the births of her children, it changes everything for her health and her child's health. In different places you run into myths around vaccination or around family planning. In the United States, one of the myths that existed for a long time, that has been completely debunked, was that autism was linked to a vaccine. 

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Despite the debunking, you have a small group in the last five years that hasn't wanted to vaccinate their children, for instance, for measles. Then, all of sudden, we got an outbreak of measles and kids were starting to die from measles. We know that from around the world, and you start to see it spreading. All of a sudden people in the United States start to realize that vaccines make a difference. The controversy and the myth that's there, we're always trying to bust through that. So when I see a disease outbreak, I say to myself, "OK, that'll get people realizing how lucky we are to have vaccines."

In the United States, there's definitely some controversy about birth control in general, and I think we needed to split the debate and have people realize that we actually agree as a country about contraceptives. Over 93 percent of American women say they use contraceptives, and they feel very good about it. 

But that controversy in the United States over birth control [lumping it in with abortion] had kept us from the global health field of really getting contraceptives out to women. Once we could bust through that and say, no, they're really separate, then we can get a global coalition. Now we just really need to do the work, which we're doing, to get contraceptives out to women worldwide.

JG: How do you deal with pushback from the Catholic Church about contraception?

MG: I am Catholic, I was raised Catholic, I am a practicing Catholic. But I say we need to agree to disagree. We have a shared mission around poverty, and I focus on that, because we do a lot with the Catholic Church around poverty alleviation. I'm always looking for: what is the common thread? What do we care about? What do we believe in? We believe in women around the world. We believe in all lives have equal value. Let's agree to disagree in some areas but move forward in others. That's how you get through the work.

JG: Our readers are primarily women in their 20s and 30s, and they're generally from the U.S. What can they do day to day to make global change for women less fortunate than they are?

MG: Use your voice. Get educated about the issues. Today is International Women's Day, and there's a fantastic set of pieces running by an organization called ONE called "Poverty Is Sexist." It's a great way to quickly learn about what's actually going on for women in poverty around the world, and then do something about it. They've got petitions that you can sign there. If you can't travel to the developing world, look at helping to fund a woman with a small loan and follow her. Learn her story. Learn about the difference that you're making. 

JG: I'm glad that you mentioned the phrase "poverty is sexist." Can you unpack that a little more for me?

MG: Poverty disproportionately affects women around the world. Just with HIV/AIDS, 74 percent of new infections are in women. In fact, they're young girls, between the ages of 15 and 24. Or if you ask, who has the chance to move into the city and get a good job out in the developing world? It's a man. Who's left to care for the kids back at home? The woman is. 

Sanitation issues in the developing world affect women more than they affect men. Childbearing, I mean, if there's no place to go to deliver your baby, then you're the one that's delivering in those unhealthy circumstances. Or if you can't get access to family planning, your chances of surviving and being able to bring your kids up if they come one right after the other, that locks you into a cycle of poverty. Or if you can't go to secondary school, the boys get to go and the girls don't, you're locked into a cycle of poverty, because you don't have a chance. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Jessica Grose is Lenny's editor in chief.

*Correction, April 1, 2016: Gates misstated the percentage of computer-science majors who were women while she was at Duke. It is 34, not 37.

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