Bill Gates is the second-richest man in the world, has built one of the world's premier software companies, and is now deeply engaged in battling such evils as child mortality and climate change. So you might expect him to delegate some of the more mundane tasks the rest of us are stuck with. Like, say, cleaning up after dinner or driving the kids to school.
Not so much. In her book Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates, a generally private person, reveals a lot about their billionaire marriage and how parenting and household chores are handled between the two of them. It's an interesting lesson for all of us, especially those of us who are married.
When the Gateses found that the ideal kindergarten for their daughter Jenn was a 40-minute drive away, Melinda decided it was worth it to make the drive through the Seattle traffic and over a bridge four times a day, one round trip to drop Jenn off in the morning and a second one to pick her up in the afternoon. One day, she complained about all this driving to Bill. Now, it would have been simple for these ultra-wealthy people to have a nanny, or a nanny plus a driver, plus a phalanx of bodyguards, take their kid to and from school. But instead of suggesting any of this, Bill said, "I can do some of that."
Melinda was surprised by this offer. At the time, Bill was still running Microsoft, and from their home it was in the opposite direction from the school. Bill would drive Jenn 40 minutes to school, drive back past their house and continue on to Microsoft. He volunteered to do this two mornings a week because it gave him a chance to spend some time talking with his daughter.
After about three weeks, Melinda noticed that there were fathers dropping kids off at the school when previously there had been only mothers. Melinda asked one of the other mothers about this. She explained, "When we saw Bill driving, we went home and said to our husbands, 'Bill Gates is driving his child to school; you can, too.'" Sometimes a thoughtful billionaire can be a great role model in ways that have nothing to do with making money.
Melinda Gates related this story as part of a chapter on the unpaid labor--the housework and child-rearing tasks--that women disproportionately do in most of the world, in particular the United States. In fact, American men lag behind men in France, Japan, Brazil, Spain, and Slovenia in their contribution of unpaid household labor, and they don't do half the housework even in households where the woman is the breadwinner, according to an analysis of the American Time Use study.
Since the 1980s, economists have called for the United States to consider this unpaid work when measuring the U.S. economy, Melinda Gates writes in her book, but it still hasn't happened. One economist traveled the world collecting data on unpaid labor--gathering firewood and fetching water in rural developing countries, or filling lunchboxes and loading the dishwasher in wealthier ones. She calculated that if this unpaid labor were paid for, it would be by far the largest sector of the global economy. Which is why Bill Gates's driving his daughter to kindergarten, a simple act of good parenting, can feel so significant.
Beyond the unpaid labor of housework, there's another type of work that mostly falls on women, commonly called emotional labor, and it occurs in both homes and workplaces. Emotional labor mainly consists of worrying about other people and making arrangements on their behalf. For example, if you're in a couple or family, who makes sure the other family members get to appointments on time? Who remembers when friends or family members have birthdays and makes sure to buy a present or plan a party? In most homes, and most offices too, it is usually a woman.
This question came up for Melinda Gates when a close friend of both her and Bill asked her if she was the "time cop" in their household. Her instinctive answer was yes. She had spent many years of the marriage making sure that homework got done and everyone got where they were supposed to be on time. But she also acknowledged that as the years had gone by, both the children and Bill had begun taking more responsibility for these things. And so she asked the friend to ask Bill the same question. His answer: "We try not to have anybody be the time cop for somebody else. We certainly talk about the calendar, but we never want to have something where one of us is cast in the carefree role and the other is in this bothersome role."
This was both a subtler and wiser answer, she writes. If you read it carefully, you'll note that Bill doesn't say one way or another whether his wife is taking on the bothersome role. What he does say, very clearly, is that she shouldn't be. That they are trying, as a couple, not to have that happen. That as a step toward a better world for everyone, having both partners share fairly in household work and emotional labor is a very worthwhile goal. It's a worthwhile goal for the rest of us as well.