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.
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."
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.