Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

Melinda Gates On Marriage, Parenting And Why She Made Bill Drive The Kids To School

Apr 28, 2019
Originally published on April 29, 2019 7:33 am

Melinda Gates, the co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has written a new book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes The World.

Published this week, the book calls on readers to support women everywhere as a means to lift up society. She pulls from her lessons learned through the inspiring women she's met on her travels with the Gates Foundation, which funds projects to reduce poverty and improve global health in the developing world (and is a funder of NPR and this blog).

But Gates also addresses gender equality in the United States — using her own story as an example. Opening up about her marriage to Bill, she talks about some of the challenges they faced in sharing the burden of parenting. And she reveals her struggle to balance her role as a mom of three, her career as a tech pioneer and philanthropist, and the public life of being married to one of the world's richest men.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In the opening pages, you talk about how you learned to renegotiate the terms of your marriage — once you stopped working at Microsoft — to focus on raising the kids. Why did you think it was important to share this?

In society there are so many issues that women face and we don't even realize what we're up against. So I chose to write my story so that hopefully people and women and men could relate to me and understand that yes, these issues exist in every single marriage.

I wanted to have both a family and I knew I wanted to go back to work. And so [Bill and I] had some negotiation to do. We said, "OK who's going to do what in our home? And how were we going to split up those roles?"

There's a cute story in your book that speaks to that. You talk about how you asked your husband to start sharing the responsibility of dropping the kids off at school. After a couple of weeks, you said you noticed that a lot more men were doing the drop-offs. And you asked one of your friends about and she said that when we saw Bill driving, we went home and said to our husbands: Bill Gates is driving his child to school. You can too. Why did you choose to highlight this story?

The reason I wrote that specific story [is that it's] an example of this unpaid labor that women do all over the world. In the U.S., women do 90 minutes more of unpaid labor at home than their husbands do. That's things like doing the dishes, carpooling, doing the laundry.

Unless we look at that and redistribute it, we're not going to let women do some of the more productive things they want to do.

The Gates Foundation is primarily focused on solving challenges in the developing world. But what are you doing to address a big topic you discuss in your book, women's equality in the United States?

When I would be flying home from various countries in Africa or Bangladesh, I'd be saying to myself: Why aren't women more empowered in those countries? And it wasn't until I turned the question back on myself and I said, "How far are we here in the United States?"

That is why I set up a separate office from the foundation, Pivotal Ventures, to start tackling these inequities for women and the barriers in the United States.

We are the only industrialized nation in the world that does not have paid family medical leave. So I would say to young women and men in this country who are in their 20s and 30s: Gender roles change when you start to have children. You need to question them, and you also need to say what should we do, public policy-wise, to support women.

A lot of the book is focused on your story, but you also talk about women around the world who are facing extreme poverty and violence in their homes. The subtitle of your book is How Empowering Women Changes The World. What's the short answer?

I believe that in empowering women, you do empower everybody else because you lift up a woman. She lifts up the rest of her family and her community and her society and her economy. And so this is absolutely about lifting up women and lifting up people of color.

You quote a friend several times in this book who was very skeptical of the ability of American billionaires to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those facing extreme poverty. Is this something you think as a society we should be talking about?

Bill and I are on record saying we believe high-income people should pay more than a middle-income family [who would] then pay more than a low-income family. It's time to revisit some of the tax policies in our society.

But make no mistake: Living in a capitalistic structure is a fabulous place to live. I meet so many families around the world who want to live in the United States and have the system we have. Warren Buffett, our co-trustees, my husband Bill — they could not have started the companies they have in Malawi or in Senegal or in Niger. We benefit from the structure we have in the United States. But we don't have it all right. And it's time to revisit the pieces that create some of these inequities.

How do you feel now that you've put your life all out there in the book?

At the moment, I feel really great. I am really comfortable at age 54 with who I am. And so I'm kind of like, take it or leave it.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you listen to NPR or follow the activities of any number of groups involved in global health, then you've surely heard of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more than two decades, Bill & Melinda Gates have donated billions of dollars to vaccination initiatives and projects to combat diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS. They've also funded schools, agricultural efforts, community centers and, yes, NPR. The foundation is a sponsor.

You probably also know Bill Gates as the co-founder of Microsoft. But what you might not know is, who is Melinda Gates, and how does she fit into this picture? She answers these questions in a surprisingly revealing new book. It's called "The Moment Of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes The World." It's both a memoir and a series of portraits of the women around the world that she's met through her role as co-chair of the foundation.

She joined me from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to talk about her book. And I asked Gates, who is a notably private person, why she wanted to write it.

MELINDA GATES: Because I think in society, there are so many issues that women face. And we don't even realize what we're up against. So I chose to write my story so that hopefully people and women and men could relate to me and understand that, yes, these issues exist in every single marriage.

And so I write the fact that I went into the marriage biased about certain gender roles - so did Bill - even though we both wanted an equal relationship. And it wasn't until we stopped and looked at the moments that we said, OK, who's going to do what in our home? And particularly, how were we going to split up those roles? Because I wanted to have both a family, and I knew I wanted to go back to work. And so we had some negotiation to do.

MARTIN: Well, there's actually - there's a cute story that speaks to that. Like, you talk about how you asked your husband to start - everybody knows who he is, OK, why am I calling him your husband? - you asked Bill Gates to start sharing the responsibility of dropping the kids off at school. And after a couple of weeks you said - you noticed a lot more men were doing drop-off. And you asked one of your friends about it. And she said that when we saw Bill driving, we went home and said to our husbands Bill Gates is driving his child to school. You can, too.

So it's kind of a sweet story, but there's a part of me that wonders, is there any part of you that grieves your old life? I mean, the fact is you were a tech pioneer in your own life. You were one of the pioneering engineers at Microsoft. You were the only woman in the first class of MBAs there. I mean, is there any part of you that grieves that part of your life?

GATES: Well, let me say this first. The reason I wrote that specific story - and it is a small example - but it's an example of this unpaid labor that women do all over the world. In the U.S., women do 90 minutes more of unpaid labor at home than their husbands do. That's things like doing the dishes, carpooling, doing the laundry. But unless we look at that and redistribute it, we're not going to let women do some of the more productive things they want to do. And over the course of a woman's lifetime, the average in the world of that unpaid labor is seven years. And I thought it was important to show how we need to role model in our homes, our community and society change in those areas.

As to my own personal journey, I think when I first got married, I certainly mourned my own life. And I think that's true in any marriage. When you enter a partnership, you have more negotiation to do. But I had always dreamt of having a family and being a working mom. I knew I wanted both. And so it's worth giving up a little bit of my freedom or a little of my own decision-making to be able to have three beautiful children and a husband who I want to share all my memories with.

MARTIN: The subtitle is "How Empowering Women Changes The World." What's the short answer? Like, why? Because there are people who would ask, well, why not empower everybody? Like, why the focus on women? Why is that so important?

GATES: Well, I believe that in empowering women, you do empower everybody else because you lift up a woman, she lifts up the rest of her family and her community and her society and her economy. And so this is absolutely about lifting up women and lifting up people of color. We have to do it.

MARTIN: On the other hand, you quote a friend several times in the book who was very skeptical of the ability of, quote, unquote, "American billionaires" to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those facing extreme poverty. I mean, right now, we're in a moment - not just in the United States, but around the world - when a lot of people are questioning - or they're asking, what is fundamentally fair?

And I wanted to ask you. It's true, your family's been extremely generous with your wealth. But some are asking now, what are the terms on which wealth is generated to begin with? Is that something you're prepared to discuss? Is that something you think, as a society, we should be talking about, and if so, how?

GATES: We should absolutely be talking about that as a society. I don't want my children to grow up in a society that has such large inequities. And so part of the reason that we work, for instance, on the U.S. education system is that is the best opportunity to reach a child in our country, to help lift them up and let them go on to thrive and have their best life.

But we have to step back as a society and say, what is it that's causing these inequities? We have to look at our tax policies. You know, Bill and I are on record saying we believe high-income people should pay more than a middle-income family than should pay more than a low-income family. And so it's time to revisit some of the tax policies, some of the regulations in our society.

But make no mistake, living in a capitalistic structure is a fabulous place to live. I meet so many families around the world who want to live in the United States and have the system we have. Warren Buffett, our co-trustee, my husband, Bill, they are so clear that, you know, they could not have started those - the companies they have in Malawi or in Senegal or in Niger. We benefit from the structure we have in the United States, but we don't have it all right. And it's time to revisit the pieces that create some of these inequities.

MARTIN: So, finally, before we let you go, how do you feel now that you kind of let the world into your private space?

GATES: Well, that might be a good question ask me a month from now. But at the moment, I feel really great because this is who I am. And so I'm kind of, like, take it or leave it. But if I can help educate young men and women to change things on behalf of others, it will help change society. So, to me, that is completely worth doing, even if it means I give up a little bit of my privacy.

MARTIN: That's Melinda Gates. She's the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Her book is "The Moment Of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes The World." Melinda Gates, thanks for talking to us.

GATES: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.