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Melinda Gates
Melinda Gates. (Flickr Photo / @WorldBank)

Melinda Gates is one of the world’s most vocal advocates for paid family and medical leave. “We are the only industrialized nation, the only one, that does not have paid family medical leave,” she stressed in an interview with GeekWire.

But she has seen, first-hand, the limitations of offering comprehensive paid leave as an employer. Gates shared what she learned pushing the limits of paid family leave in a wide-ranging conversation about her new book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.” As a former tech executive, prolific philanthropist, parent, and wife, Gates offers a unique vantage point into the opportunities for women and the social norms that hold them back. One challenge: Women are disproportionately burdened with caring for family members.

To balance the scales, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began offering one year of paid family for employees in 2015. After three years, the organization found it was untenable to provide that much time off.

“It was putting more burden on the work that we want to get done in the world than we wanted it to,” Gates said. “We believe in balancing family and work life, but we felt we had tipped a bit too far in terms of the family piece of it.”

The foundation reduced its paid leave benefit to six months plus a $20,000 stipend to help with childcare and other expenses. We asked Gates what startups that don’t have as many resources as the foundation can do to support employees caring for loved ones. She suggested getting creative.

“I’ve seen a few startups, actually a couple here in Seattle, decide that they’re going to allow the mom, while she’s still nursing, to bring her baby to work at times … there are creative ways you can do it,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s easy to do, but … what we find is that employees who feel their employer understands their overall life is likely to stay longer at a company.”

Although retention is a key issue for the tech industry, it isn’t the main benefit of paid leave according to Gates. She believes it makes the division of labor outside the office more equitable between men and women.

Q&A: Melinda Gates opens up about tech industry, equality and 3 women who changed her life

“There is no place in the world where women and men do the same amount of unpaid labor,” she said. “In the United States, women do 90 minutes more per day than their husbands, 90 minutes more. That’s time that she could be in the gym, investing in her health, maybe getting another degree, maybe doing something else she wants to do after work.”

Unpaid labor is a key theme in Gates’ book. It’s defined as all chores and work that are not paid but essential to keep life running smoothly. Because the burden of unpaid work falls largely on women’s shoulders, they have less time to achieve their potential, according to Gates.

As individuals, she calls on women and men to take inventory of the unpaid labor in their lives and share it more equitably. As an employer, she believes the Gates Foundation has found its sweet spot with six months of leave and $20,000.

“That seems to be about right in terms of men and women then coming back to work,” she said. “I think that’ll help us be the most efficient as an organization with the resources that we have and support families.”

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