In Melinda and Bill Gates’ annual letter outlining their philanthropic priorities Ms Gates highlighted the unpaid housework and childcare done by women across the world.
“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,” wrote Ms Gates, co-founder of the couple’s charitable foundation, in late February.
The problem is not just that household chores are dull, she points out.
“It ends up robbing women of their potential,” Ms Gates said when quizzed for further explanation. “This is a societal issue that in 2016 shouldn’t exist any more.”
Women across the world spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on unpaid work while men spend less than half that much time, Ms Gates writes.
The burden of unpaid work falls most heavily on women in poor countries. But these domestic inequalities also hurt women in developed countries. Even in the very top echelons of society, such imbalances are continuing to drag the chances of women achieving their ambitions of reaching the top of business organisations.
According to a study of US corporate leaders, 25 women made up just 5 per cent of Fortune 500 chief executives in 2015 — a tiny fraction of a cohort overwhelmingly dominated by men. The large majority of such leaders are often already drawn from privileged economic backgrounds, who can afford to pay for nannies and housekeepers.
“By the time they are CEOs they make big bucks so they can afford nannies and housekeepers, even if they are among the relatively few who came from backgrounds that were not economically privileged,” says Richie Zweigenhaft, professor of psychology at Guilford College in North Carolina, who conducted the research. Ethnicity adds another layer to the problem. There has been only one African-American woman who has been a Fortune 500 chief executive — Ursula Burns of Xerox. Two of the 11 Asian-American chief executives in 2015 were women and there is yet to be a Latina Fortune 500 chief executive, says Prof Zweigenhaft. He adds that the gradual increase in female chief executives has been “glacial at best”.
The study found the limited progress that has taken place applies much more to white women and recent South Asian immigrants than to African Americans, Latinas, or those from traditional Asian-American backgrounds such as China, Japan or Korea.
One of the “ironic” effects of the increase in women at the top may be that the “heyday of diversity has come and gone”, argues Prof Zweigenhaft.
“Now that there have been some women, African-American, Latina and Asian-American CEOs, there may be less, not more, pressure on boards to consider and appoint them as CEOs.”
Nearly all of the successful female chief executives have been married and most have had children.
“We weren’t inside these marriages but clearly some of these had husbands who were willing to put their careers second to their higher-powered partners, helping with the children and household chores and showing a willingness to move,” he adds.
“Even having help with the entertaining can be an important to CEOs, who have to do a lot of it.”
According to a survey by Mumsnet, the UK website, around two-thirds of mothers felt that parenthood had affected their careers. Nearly half of the women who reported suffering from the so-called motherhood penalty believed that more should be done to address the issues by employers and governments. Most also felt that their male partners’ careers had not been affected.
Companies are picking up on the trend. A recent video advertising Ariel washing powder in India received millions of views and has been highlighted by women such as Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and the author of Lean In, a book on women’s role in the workplace.
It depicts a father watching his young professional daughter juggle a work call while cooking, doing the laundry and attending to her young son. Meanwhile, his son-in-law watches television and demands dinner. The advertisement ends with the father writing his daughter a letter, apologising on behalf of “every dad who set the wrong example” and promising to do more to help her mother with household chores.
In her book, Ms Sandberg says that she had to resist falling into a traditional role once she had children.
Although Ms Sandberg credited her recently deceased husband, Dan Goldberg, “with making everything possible” and sharing tasks in the home, she also acknowledged that for too many women it remained a rarity.
Her advice: “When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated, and ambitious. Someone who values fairness, and expects or, even better, wants to do his share in the home.”