In The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates keeps a list of the rights and privileges societies around the world deny women and girls, sometimes by law and other times in practice.
“The right to decide whether and when and whom to marry,” she offers. “The right to go to school. Earn an income. Work outside the home. Walk outside the home. Spend their own money. Shape their budget. Start a business. Get a loan. Own property. Divorce a husband. See a doctor. Run for office. Ride a bike. Drive a car. Go to college. Study computers. Find investors.”
These are the things we’ve decided are “women’s issues,” and we’ve told women that they have to fix them—either by single-handedly changing hearts and minds, or by changing themselves. On Father’s Day, we should change that conversation.
During a recent event in Los Angeles, Gates and celebrity philanthropist John Legend talked about fatherhood, family and the feminist paradigm shifts people across genders need to improve their lives—at work and at home.
“For women who spend all their hours doing unpaid work, the chores of the day kill the dreams of a lifetime,” Gates explains in her book. “What do I mean by unpaid work? It’s work performed in the home, like childcare or other forms of caregiving, cooking, cleaning, shopping and errands, done by a family member who’s not being paid. In many countries, when communities don’t have electricity or running water, unpaid work is also the time and labor women and girls spend collecting water and gathering wood.”
Most families in the U.S. have running water and electricity—but these imbalances persist. According to Gates, women in the U.S. do an average of four hours of unpaid work each day, and men do just two-and-a-half. Around the world, she writes that women spend an average of seven years more than men doing unpaid work over their lives—”about the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.”
In Los Angeles, Gates remembered negotiating pick-up and drop-off with her husband, Bill, when her daughter enrolled in a new school further from home. Melinda felt it was farther than she wanted to drive, and because Bill wanted his daughter to begin classes immediately, he offered to drive her two mornings a week. Men began participating more after they saw Bill dropping off his daughter—”because if Bill Gates had time to drop his daughter off, other dads had no excuse anymore.”
It’s a sweet anecdote, but in my head when I heard the story I couldn’t help but notice that Bill still only did 20 percent of the work. Melinda was still carrying a lion’s share—doing three days of drop-off and five days of pick-up—but Bill was celebrated, whereas her work remained invisible.
Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient, think that in order to flip the script, we need to normalize caregiving, at home and in the workplace, for men and women—starting with equal paid leave for all parents when they expand their families.
“When both men and women take parental leave for having a child,” Zalis told Ms., “it is good for everyone. Equality isn’t a female issue—it’s a business and economic issue. A company’s parental leave policy should be inclusive for all to allow everyone to thrive in the workplace.”
Federal policies could also help change the narrative. The U.S. is the only “developed” nation that does not have a federal family leave policy, which leaves women in the lurch. Because our culture expects them to be primary caretakers at home, they’re disproportionately pushed out of work when they start families.
The only way to break the cycle of male dominance in corporate leadership is to level the playing ground, in policy and in practice. Business should offer equitable leave for all parents, and men should take advantage of it. Gates urged women in the audience in Los Angeles to encourage them to do so in order to shift norms as we also push for better laws.
“The lack of paid leave in the U.S. is symptomatic of a workplace culture that also struggles with sexual harassment, gender bias and a general indifference to family life,” Zalis explained. “It’s unfortunate, because we are losing our best leaders to caregiving—yet caregiving qualities make the best leaders today. Let’s not underestimate the power of caregiver traits, which include being nurturing, passionate and empathetic.”
This Father’s Day, the greatest gift to men in the U.S. could come from their bosses. Giving men the opportunity to support their partners and their children at home—and building a culture that supports them in doing so—will lift up all of us.
“How can we summon a moment of lift for human beings—and especially for women?” Gates asks in her book. “Because when you lift up women, you lift up humanity.” Paid family leave is something that could change our corner of humanity right now—affirming everyone’s right to have a fulfilling family life and professional life.
I hope this Father’s day that children across the country are celebrating dads who cook, do chores, help with homework and keep their households running—all while thriving at work. We can have healthy, happy communities and families. By demanding as much, we can change humanity.