Every year for the past decade, the Gates Foundation has published an annual letter addressing the Foundation's work and passion points. These letters, inspired by the ones Warren Buffet writes to his shareholders every year, have taken on different forms. For the first five years, they were written solely by Bill Gates; Melinda Gates added her thoughts in videos released in the fall.
In 2014, the letters shifted from "me" and "I" to "we" and "ours". It was a subtle change, but one that reflected the joint partnership between the husband and wife pair. This partnership became the focus of the most interesting question addressed in this year's Gates Foundation letter, "The 10 Toughest Questions We Get." The format is similar to Facebook's Hard Questions blog, and the majority of the "toughest questions" focus on the projects the Foundation funds (and doesn't fund), and how it does so: "Why don't you give money to fight climate change?"; "Are you imposing your values on other cultures?"
But the ninth question Bill and Melinda Gates answer is a little different: "What happens when the two of you disagree?" On a surface level, the question is a reasonable one that points to the oft-discuss challenges that come with combining your professional and personal lives. Google "spouses who work together", and you'll find no shortage of "survival tips" for navigating the tricky waters.
In the context of the Gates Foundation letter, what's interesting is that Bill and Melinda not only address how they make it work at work, but they challenge what the question itself implies. "Bill almost never gets this question," Melinda Gates writes. "I get it all the time. Sometimes, it’s from journalists hinting that Bill must be the one making the decisions."
This assumption, based on stereotypes about gender roles at work, would actually prove counterproductive if true: Experts point to the importance of couples balancing control of different responsibilities to maximize effectiveness at work. However, Gates does realistically acknowledge the challenges she faced when she started working at the foundation:
"When Bill first came over to the foundation from Microsoft, he was used to being in charge. I’d stayed home with our kids, so I was restarting my career. There were times I felt that disparity — in meetings when I was reticent and he was voluble, or when the person we were meeting with looked toward Bill and not me. It’s always been important to us that we are equal partners in our foundation’s work."
Bill Gates also nods at typecast assumptions of the roles each couple plays in the partnership, adding, "Some people see Melinda as the heart of our foundation, the emotional core. But just as she knows I’m more emotional than people realize, I know she’s more analytical than people realize. When I get really enthusiastic about something, I count on her to make sure I’m being realistic."
Achieving balance in a relationship, whether it's at work or at home, isn't easy. But if you need a reminder of what it looks like, simply give this year's letter a read.