In her annual letter to Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, Melinda Gates has shared with her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and her partner in the Gates Foundation, and children Jennifer, Phoebe, and Rory, and others about the burden of unpaid work that falls disproportionately on women.
Titled “More Time,” the letter discusses the gender gap in work. She writes that she and her siblings had many friends with stay-at-home moms who spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Being a design fan, he couldn’t help but notice that their kitchens were “triangle kitchens,” making cooking and baking efficient. Nobody questioned the assumption that “women were supposed to spend most of their lives in the kitchen, retracing their steps in a seemingly endless triangle.”
Since then, the world has changed a lot, and most girls today think that they will not have to follow the old rules while the boys agree with them.
She writes, “I’m sorry to say this, but if you think that, you’re wrong. Unless things change, girls today will spend hundreds of thousands more hours than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it’s their responsibility.”
She calls it unpaid work because it’s not paid for, but somebody has to cook, clean, run errands, and make trips to nursing homes to visit the elderly. The picture in many other countries, especially the developing ones, is even worse.
She writes, “Globally, women spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on unpaid work. Men spend less than half that much time. But the fact is that the burden of unpaid work falls heaviest on women in poor countries, where the hours are longer and the gap between women and men is wider. In India, to take one example, women spend about 6 hours, and men spend less than 1 hour.”
The kitchens in the poor countries are not “triangular.” Rather, the girls in many countries have to move in “straight lines” to fetch water or chop wood. She gives an example from her trip to Tanzania.
“When I visited Tanzania a couple of years ago, I spent a few days with Anna and Sanare and their six kids. Anna’s day started at 5 a.m. with lighting a fire to cook breakfast. After we cleaned up, we fetched water. Once Anna’s bucket was full it weighed 40 pounds. (The average distance women walk to get clean water in rural Africa and Asia is two miles each way. Imagine doing that with almost half your body weight on your head!) When we got back to the house I was exhausted, even though I’d carried less than Anna. But we couldn’t rest, because it was time to build the fire again for lunch.”
Calling herself to a “human Fitbit,” she pictures the future that lies ahead.
She writes, “The world is making progress by doing three things economists call Recognize, Reduce, and Redistribute: Recognize that unpaid work is still work. Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And Redistribute it more evenly between women and men. Let’s start with Reducing, because that’s the most straightforward. Rich countries have done a great job of Reducing the time it takes to do most household tasks. That’s what the triangle kitchen was all about. Americans don’t fetch water because faucets fetch it for us, instantly. We don’t spend all day on a load of laundry because the washing machine does it in a half-hour. Cooking goes much faster when you start with a gas stove instead of an ax and a tree.”
The distribution of work that needs to be done needs to be considered in context rather than in quantity, and the change has to be normal.
She writes, “In the end, the goal is to change what we think of as normal—and not thinking it’s funny or weird when a man puts on an apron, picks up his kids from school, or leaves a cute note in his son’s lunchbox.”
The last line sounds like a direct message addressed to her kids.
“I can’t wait to see where your steps will lead you. Not necessarily in triangles. Not in straight lines, unless that’s what you want. But in any direction you choose.”
The annual letter by Melinda Gates has opened up a debate for the global redressal of the issue of disproportionate distribution and gender gap in work.
[Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]