Melinda Gates in her brilliant annual letter jointly written with Bill Gates makes timely and most relevant propositions.Think non-linear.
My brothers and sister and I had a lot of friends whose mothers, as we used to say, stayed home instead of working (though now I know that staying home is working—and working very hard, even though you don’t get paid for it).
The moms in our neighborhood seemed to spend most of their time in the kitchen. I’m interested in design, so I know now that their kitchens were “triangle kitchens,” with the fridge, sink, and stove laid out to make whipping up an omelet as quick and easy as possible. Kitchen design was a fad throughout the 20th century. In one demonstration, a woman baked two identical strawberry shortcakes, one in a regular kitchen and the other in a new and improved version. The process required 281 footsteps the first time around but only 41 the second. The kitchen itself made cake-baking 85 percent more efficient!
What the triangle kitchen didn’t do was challenge the idea that women were supposed to spend most of their lives in the kitchen, retracing their steps in a seemingly endless triangle.
But this is 2016, not the 1970s or the 1950s. If you’re an American, three out of four moms at your school have a job. Your father probably does at least some cooking. There’s a 35 percent chance you live with one parent (which means he or she has to do all the paid work and all the unpaid work). Maybe you split your time between two houses and four parents, or maybe both your parents are moms (or dads). The world has changed a lot.
I know from listening to my kids and their friends—and from looking at polling data about how teenagers see the future—that most girls don’t think they will be stuck with the same rules that kept their grandmothers in the home. And most boys agree with them.
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.
Unpaid work is what it says it is: It’s work, not play, and you don’t get any money for doing it. But every society needs it to function. You can think of unpaid work as falling into three main categories: cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and the elderly. Who packs your lunch? Who fishes the sweaty socks out of your gym bag? Who hassles the nursing home to make sure your grandparents are getting what they need?
Now, this work has to be done by somebody. But it’s overwhelmingly women who are expected to do it, for free, whether they want to or not.
This holds true in every single country in the world. 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.
Most girls in poor countries don’t have a triangle kitchen. Instead, they move in long, straight lines, back and forth, because they have to walk miles to fetch water and chop wood. The geometry of their footsteps is different, but it’s still based on the assumption that keeping the household running is their responsibility. The massive number of hours these girls spend on these tasks distorts their entire lives. It’s almost impossible for those of us lucky enough to live in rich countries to understand how unpaid work dominates the lives of hundreds of millions of women and girls.
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. After that we went into the forest to chop wood for the next day’s fires, being careful not to get stung by scorpions. Then we went for more water, then milked the goats, then dinner. We were up past 10 at night, washing dishes in the moonlight.
How many thousands of steps did I take that day? However many it was, Anna had to multiply that number by every day of her life.
Why am I counting the footsteps of women around the world, like a human Fitbit?
Because you are imagining your future right now, and I want your feet to lead you wherever you’re going to find the most meaning and satisfaction.
It’s not just about fairness; assigning most unpaid work to women harms everyone: men, women, boys, and girls.
The reason? Economists call it opportunity cost: the other things women could be doing if they didn’t spend so much time on mundane tasks. What amazing goals would you accomplish with an extra hour every day? Or, in the case of girls in many poor countries, an extra five or more? There are lots of ways to answer this question, but it’s obvious that many women would spend more time doing paid work, starting businesses, or otherwise contributing to the economic well-being of societies around the world. The fact that they can’t holds their families and communities back.
Girls in poorer countries might say they’d use extra time to do their homework. Housework comes first, so girls often fall behind in school. Global statistics show that it’s increasingly girls, not boys, who don’t know how to read.
Mothers might say they’d go to the doctor. In poor countries, moms are usually responsible for their kids’ health. But breastfeeding and traveling to the clinic take time, and research shows that health care is one of the first tradeoffs women make when they’re too busy.
Some women might simply read a book or take a walk or visit a friend, and I totally support that, too. Everybody’s better off when more of us are fulfilled in our daily lives.
I’m writing this because I’m optimistic. Though no country has gotten the balance perfect yet, many have narrowed the unpaid labor gap by several hours a day. America and Europe have come a long way. The Scandinavian countries have gone even further.
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.
In poorer countries, though, most women still haul water, clean clothes by hand, and cook over an open flame.
The solution is innovation, and you can help. Some of you will become engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and software developers. I invite you to take on the challenge of serving the poor with cheap, clean energy, better roads, and running water. Or maybe you can invent ingenious labor-saving technologies. Can you imagine a machine that washes clothes using no electricity and very little water? Perhaps you can improve on the mortar and pestle, the 40,000-year-old technology I see women using to grind grain into food every time I travel in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.
But Reducing by itself isn’t enough, because it’s not just that housework takes a long time; it’s also that every culture expects women to do it. If tasks start taking less time, societies can (and do) simply assign women more tasks to fill up the time they’re deemed to have available. No matter how efficient we make housework, we won’t actually free up women’s time until we Recognize that it’s just as valuable as men’s.
This isn’t a global plot by men to oppress women. It’s more subtle than that. The division of work depends on cultural norms, and we call them norms because they seem normal—so normal that many of us don’t notice the assumptions we’re making. But your generation can notice them—and keep pointing them out until the world pays attention.
Think about your household chores. If you’re an American girl, you probably do 2 hours of chores a week more than boys. If you’re a boy, you’re 15 percent more likely to be paid for doing your chores. And what percent of girls’ chores are inside, and what percent of boys’ are outside? Why is that?
In TV commercials you see, how often are men doing laundry, cooking, or running after kids? (The answer: 2 percent of the time.) How many of the women are advertising kitchen or cleaning products? (More than half.)
Once we see these norms, we can replace them with something better.
What do those better norms look like? How are you going to Redistribute the work it takes to live?
It’s not an easy question.
For example, nobody supports a 50/50 split of all types of work at all times. Part of belonging to a family is cooperating, and sometimes one person is going to change a few more diapers because another is focused on a different important task.
Furthermore, not all unpaid work is created equal. Folding laundry isn’t rewarding, unless you’re one of those obsessively neat people. (I’m not.) But caring for a child or a sick relative is deeply meaningful, and many people, Bill and me included, want to take time to concentrate on that part of life. Sharing the burdens of unpaid work also means sharing the joys .In fact, studies show that when fathers are able to take time off from paid work when their children are born, they spend more time with their kids and doing other kinds of housework for years to come. As a result, they form a stronger bond with their partners and children. That’s one reason why I think access to paid family and medical leave is so important for families.
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.
When it comes to Recognize, Reduce, and Redistribute, the story of Anna and Sanare, the couple I stayed with in Tanzania, is pretty inspiring. When they got married, Anna moved from a lush part of the country to live in Sanare’s drought-ridden area. She had a hard time adjusting to the extra work that meant. Finally, Sanare came home one day to see Anna sitting on the steps ready to leave, her bags packed and their first child, Robert, in her arms. Sanare, heartbroken, asked how he could persuade her to stay. “Fetch water,” she said, “so I can nurse our son.” And so, Recognizing the imbalance, he did. He started walking the miles to the well every day. At first the other village men made fun of him and even accused Anna of witchcraft. But when he said, “My son will be healthier because I’m doing this,” they started Redistributing the work with him. After a while, when they got sick of working so hard, they decided to build water tanks to collect rainwater near the village. Now that they’ve Reduced, no matter who goes to get water, Anna or Sanare, it’s a lot closer—and they both spend more time with Robert and their other kids.
The world can learn a lot from this couple.
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.END
By Milinda Gates ( Source Annual Letter 2016 By Bill Gates and Milinda Gates )