Melinda Gates is a private person. She believes, however, that by sharing our stories ‘we can change the culture’ of inequality between the sexes. Hence her decision to offer the world a rare peek behind the scenes of her marriage to Bill Gates.
In her recent book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, we duly learn about her battle for equality at home. We learn how Bill, the founder of Microsoft, offered to step up and drive their daughter to kindergarten twice a week, back in 2001. We learn how Melinda finally put her foot down about being the last one in the kitchen after dinner, cleaning up for her three children and husband. We even learn how she initially turned Bill down when he first asked her out on a date after running into her in the Microsoft car park.
‘He struck up a conversation and asked me out for two weeks from Friday,’ she writes. ‘I laughed and said, ‘That’s not spontaneous enough for me. Ask me out closer to the date,’ and I gave him my number.’ He called her two hours later and invited her out for that evening, asking, ‘Is this spontaneous enough for you?’
And so began the story of one of the most successful power couples of our times, a couple who have used their immense wealth (Bill has a net worth of $103.8 billion) to make immense change around the world, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Melinda, 55, a computer science graduate who began her career at Microsoft before moving into philanthropy, has another reason for submitting herself to what she calls the ‘painful’ process of sharing details of her personal life.
‘I need to be open about my flaws or I may fall into the conceit of thinking I’m here on Earth to solve other people’s problems,’ she writes. But solving other people’s problems, or doing all she can to help tackle them, has in fact now become her life’s work. Her book, she hopes, will be a call to action for others, no matter what their means.
‘We all have our time or our energy and intellect or resources to give back, no matter who you are,’ she tells me, when we speak. Which roughly translates as: you needn’t be a billionaire to help others.
She’s been pleased with the reception to the book, which, published in April, has become a New York Times bestseller: ‘It seems like it’s stimulated conversations about inequality in the world,’ she says.
But it’s clear that inequality at home also matters, and as reluctant as she was to divulge even more details of her own domestic set-up, she doesn’t sound like she regrets having done so.
‘I think it’s important for us to talk about it,’ she says. ‘Talking about... me being a little frustrated about doing all the driving to school... allows Bill to shift his thinking into participating. We inadvertently role-modelled, and other families started shifting.’
She has had her own experiences of workplace inequality as well, ‘There are certainly places I was discriminated against or harassed in what would seem like minor ways, but any woman who is harassed in the workplace, it affects her,’ she says.
Her work has focused on empowering women around the world, and during her extensive global travels, she’s seen how many have been pushed to the margins. As an advocate for causes such as access to contraception and vaccinations, it’s hard to think of many voices that would hold more authority than hers. But initially even she had to struggle to be heard.
‘Early on in the foundation’s work, definitely,’ she says. ‘In the early days I’d walk into a meeting with a prime minister or president with my husband, and their opening question would be for him, or they’d assume he would answer.
‘If it was about family planning, I’d have far more information, so I had to learn to assert myself early on in the conversation and you could almost see their face change... People would assume he would know more or be the one in the lead.’
Given all this, one imagines her three children – two daughters aged 23 and 16 and a son aged 20 – must have grown up with ideas about equality drummed into them from birth. But Melinda admits that although ‘we worked very hard to parent them the same’, she has caught herself assigning her children different roles depending on their sex. She recalls having to ask herself, for instance: ‘Why, after dinner, am I asking my son to take out the garbage and not my daughters?’ It’s fair to assume her daughters may well not have minded their exclusion from this task, but the point remains that Melinda has even noticed bias in herself. Having said this, she agrees her children ‘have definitely grown up with equality’. They have also grown up with something else: the fact that their parents are one of the world’s richest couples. Does she worry about them being treated any differently because of this?
‘That’s concerned me from the day I got pregnant,’ she says. ‘I’ve been purposeful about how I raised them and tuned their radar about why people are getting to know them – they want to be loved by people who love them for who they are [and] learn to know who’s there for them because they’re them.’
Having witnessed the sometimes devastating effects on women denied choice about when and whether to have children, she also wants her own to know it will be their decision when the time comes – and that she, for one, won’t be sticking in her oar. ‘I want my daughters, and my son, to have children when they feel they are ready in life,’ she says firmly. ‘And I trust they’ll make that decision with their hearts and minds.’
Melinda and Bill have made a point of carving out time to do normal things themselves. What other secrets do they have to the success of their 25-year marriage?
‘I think Bill and I have learnt it takes time in a marriage,’ she says. ‘We’ve learnt how to communicate well with one another and communicate things when we know the other one is at a receptive point of listening.
‘Sometimes that means putting a discussion on hold until the other person is rested. Sometimes you’ve just got to go out and play: doing something fun together; going out to a movie together; going on a date night.’
Which, by the way, they have scheduled since the start of their marriage. ‘We are very purposeful about it,’ says Melinda. ‘We lead incredibly busy lives with work and three children, so we literally put date nights on our calendar.’
It’s impossible not to admire this pragmatic approach. But Melinda is someone who gets things done, and whose optimism doesn’t seem to have been dulled by 20 years of humanitarian work. There is still much that needs to be done, she is clear. But her message is that many things are changing for the better.
The Daily Telegraph