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Melinda Gates on balancing the burden of unpaid work

Melinda Gates wants to change expectations about women's work. Jemal Countess/Getty Images

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It’s women who do an outsized proportion of the chores in poor countries and in rich ones. In a developing country, it might be the hours hauling drinking water. In developed countries, it might be who’s running around picking up the kids, getting groceries or caring for sick family members. Women are suffering from a lack of time, argues Melinda Gates, and it’s costing all of us. Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio spoke with Gates about the issue of “time poverty” and what can be done to rebalance unpaid work between men and women. 

Gates: Just to give you one example, I spent some time living with a family last year in Tanzania and their young daughter who was 14, Grace, who was about the age of my daughter. We were still doing dishes late at night in the dirt under the moonlight at 10:30 at night. And when my daughter finally came out with a headlamp on her head, the thing that this girl most wanted – and she was quite shy – was my daughter’s headlamp. Because she said, “Then when I’m finished with the dishes at night, I can study using that light.” She doesn’t even start her homework until after 10:30, whereas I saw her brother doing it when it was around 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon.

Brancaccio: And so if there were a greater balance in which men are pitching in on an equal level on the unpaid work, the chores, you think this would accrue to GDP?

Gates: This is one of the things that I want us to look at. We don’t measure it as part of GDP which is kind of unheard of to me because this is work, unpaid work is still work… And it’s funny because our economies are built on the back of this unpaid work. We know in countries where women’s work starts to decrease —that is, instead of doing five hours, they reduce it down to three hours at home – women’s labor force participation rises by 10 percent. So it shows you, it frees up their time so they can go do things — you know, be a nurse, be a politician, decide that they want to be a scientist. You unlock this huge potential that they’ve got, and we’re not tapping into that.

Brancaccio: I was talking to your spouse the other week; he had some provocative ideas about finding new energy sources, but in the case of time, what you’re highlighting here, scientists can’t bend the space-time continuum. So what are ways to tackle some of this?

Gates: Economists refer to the solutions as “the three Rs.” First, recognize the problem, do some things to reduce it, and third, redistribute the workload. For instance, women spend 125 million hours a day collectively carrying water. We can reduce that with certain innovations, but then also you have to do the piece of redistribute. That sometimes takes social policies. In the U.S., for instance, we don’t have a good family leave policy, and we should. Other countries have had these for a long time. That redistributes who does the child care at home and what the expectations are right off the bat when you have a young child.

Brancaccio: It’s interesting about that policy angle; I was looking at the data – you’ve seen it too. If you compare the U.S. to Europe, the Europeans aren’t doing much better in terms of all these women doing the unpaid work and the men doing so much less. Yet they have more child friendly policies in much of the individual countries in Europe.

Gates: The gap that is the smallest in the world is in the Scandinavian countries, so I think they actually have gotten it right. I think they’ve gotten the closest to equity that we can get at this point. I think they’ll continue to get it. You’re seeing this trend of families moving in this direction. Even in the last 30 years, if you look at the unpaid work that’s done in the home that men do compared to women, that gap is starting to shrink. But I think it’s the very forward-looking policies you get in the Scandinavian countries, of getting your family leave policy right. Some of the European countries started with the family leave and now they are starting to adjust it. Countries like Germany just put it in in the last year, so it’s hard to make this apples-to-apples comparison because also, the family leave policies aren’t the same across the board. And when I talk about family leave, I don’t just mean caring for a young child, I also mean caring for your elderly parents. Usually in a relationship, both people have elderly parents that need to be cared for. It needs to be OK for the man or the woman to take that time off and then come back into the same level position that they’ve had.

Brancaccio: Tell me about your assumptions about where the “slacker partner” is going to get the time to contribute more to the chores; it seems like you hope that some of it is drawn from free time.

Gates: Yes, some of it does definitely come out of leisure time. So if you look at what women are not getting to do, they are not getting to watch a movie or sit down and watch TV or exercise. And we have to understand that if you have a partner out working in the workforce, they are working all day too, so something has to give in the household. So you need to have those conversations, and that’s a piece of it.

Brancaccio: I mean you raise that issue, because it is possible this so-called “slacker partner” is out there knocking himself out bringing home the dollars. And if it’s a struggling family, there may be several jobs that that partner is doing who is not contributing perhaps as much as he should to the household chores. It may just be the demands of work, not watching football games?

Gates: But she may also have huge demands, or two partners in a relationship, no matter what sex they are, they both probably have very high demands in the workforce. It’s this hidden – we just expect that when the child is sick, the woman is going to take the time off to take the child to the doctor to get vaccines, or we just expect that she’s going to do the laundry or pick up the clothes or make sure the kid has the backpack in the morning. Not clear why we expect that. We’ve gotten into this situation, but what I know is that we can change it. And I think there are many things we can do to change it and I think starting with these conversations at home and then talking about what social policies we have. And then for me, in the developing world, I also care a lot about: do we get technological innovations? Do we have seeds that mean less weeding and less farming for women? Do we have mobile phones so that they can get access to market prices for their crops? There are all kinds of technology saving things that will reduce it a certain amount and then to get the rest of the way, you’ve got to have this rebalancing at home and you’ve got to have great social policies.

Brancaccio: I see that when you ask them, many young people think that this is already changed, that this is not going to happen to them when they soon get out into their family lives. And you’re here to say it hasn’t changed as much as they think?

Gates: Often when a couple enters a relationship, even if they have equity when they start the marriage, something changes. From the data, we know that from the day that first child is born, something drops back. Now, the woman at this time is often breastfeeding, or she’s the one who’s getting up at night. If you have that conversation both before the time you are married or in a serious relationship, and then again at the time that the child is born, you’re not going to keep equity in the marriage, and so we need to make sure it doesn’t fall back there. The other thing I’ll say is, men are doing more at home. They are doing about two and half hours a day at home — that’s not insubstantial. But TV ads only show men doing any kind of housework 2 percent of the time. And so, what are we teaching our kids? We’re teaching them that, “Oh, he does that and mom does something else.” That doesn’t make any sense for where we are today and what’s actually happening. 

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