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

Melinda Gates at a panel discussion in New York in February. She is the author of a new book, <em>The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.</em>
John Lamparski
Getty Images
Melinda Gates at a panel discussion in New York in February. She is the author of a new book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.

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.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.