OPINION: The Bill-Melinda Gates romance started with a rejection

“We’re quick to criticize gender injustice when we see it around the world,” Melinda Gates says. “We also need to see it where most of us feel it and can do something about it — in the places where we work.”

Melinda Gates recounts her evolution to feminist in her new memoir.

Melinda Gates has always had an independent streak. When she was still Melinda French and a young employee working at Microsoft in 1987, Bill Gates flirted with her in the parking lot and asked if she would go out with him in two weeks. She turned him down.

“That’s not spontaneous enough for me,” she told him. “Ask me out closer to the date.”

An hour or two later, Bill Gates phoned her and invited her out for that evening. “Is this spontaneous enough for you?” he asked.

And then they lived happily ever after.

Actually, not exactly. Melinda Gates has written a smart new memoir, “The Moment of Lift,” recounting how she ended up a feminist — and arguing that the American workplace needs a makeover.

Some of her story is deeply personal. She endured an abusive relationship. She felt out of place in Microsoft’s high-testosterone environment. And then she struggled to forge an equal relationship with Bill (it helped that she beat him at a math game).

I hugely admire what Bill and Melinda Gates have done to alleviate global suffering. Hundreds of thousands of children now survive each year who wouldn’t have without the Gateses’ money, advocacy and ingenuity. They have also been steadfast in advocating changes in tax laws — raising the inheritance tax, for example — to create a more fair society.

During interviews with Bill and Melinda over many years, I’ve often tried to get them to dish on their relationship, as a way of spicing up discussions about global health and their foundation work. They resolutely resisted my interrogations.

Fortunately, in her book, Melinda comes clean on marital tensions — the kind in any relationship — as a way of recounting her feminist voyage. Some readers may mock these difficulties, thinking, “Why feel sorry for a billionaire?” My take is different.

Of course her challenges are nothing compared with those of victims of sex trafficking, acid attacks or obstetric fistula around the world. Just this month, a heroic Bangladeshi teenager named Nusrat was burned to death after she reported her headmaster for groping her. Such gross injustices must be our priority. But we lack moral authority to protest abroad when we shrug at inequities here at home.

One of Melinda’s first challenges came in the harsh, male-dominated techie culture at Microsoft. “It was just so brash, so argumentative and competitive, with people fighting to the end on every point,” she writes. She began thinking about quitting.

Then she found a woman colleague, Charlotte Guyman, who felt the same. “It’s not O.K. for women to cry at work, but it’s O.K. for men to yell at work?” Guyman once asked. With other women employees, they began to create oases in Microsoft where courtesy was not seen as a sign of weakness. A critical mass of women employees helped civilize the company.

Yet while women were 35 percent of the computer science graduates in the U.S. in 1987, when Melinda graduated from Duke with such a degree, the share has now dropped to 19 percent. Only 2 percent of venture capital partners in America are women. Much of the United States workplace remains tilted against women, especially moms.

“We’re sending our daughters into a workplace that was designed for our dads — set up on the assumption that employees had partners who would stay home to do the unpaid work of caring for family,” Melinda writes. She notes that the U.S. is a rare country that does not mandate some paid parental leave.

“We’re quick to criticize gender injustice when we see it around the world,” Melinda observes. “We also need to see it where most of us feel it and can do something about it — in the places where we work.”

After the marriage, in 1994, Melinda still struggled, and one flash point was the annual letter that Bill had been writing for the foundation they had established. Melinda was co-chair of the foundation and wanted to write it with him in 2013. Bill didn’t like the idea. “We both got angry,” Melinda writes, adding: “I thought we were going to kill each other. I felt, ‘Well, this just might end the marriage right here.’”

In the end, Bill wrote the letter for 2013 but included a section by Melinda. In 2014, it became a joint letter, but mostly written by Bill. Finally, in 2015 it morphed into a truly balanced letter.

That’s how equal marriages are built: not just on romance but also on hard work and grumpy compromises. And equal marriages help build fairer societies. When their eldest child, Jenn, began school an hour round-trip drive away, Bill volunteered to take her to school two days a week. That changed the norms, and abruptly other dads at the school began sharing the driving as well.

“When we saw Bill driving,” one mom explained to Melinda, “we went home and said to our husbands, ‘Bill Gates is driving his kid to school; you can, too.’”

Related I spoke with Melinda Gates on Twitter. Take a look.


By Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times



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