Inadvertently becoming the change you wish to see in the world

(Note: The quote is fake, by the way.)

It's the Labor Day holiday in the United States, so instead of technical content, I'm going to share this story.¹ You can hear it in Melinda Gates' own words, but here's a transcript, with some clarifying words added by me.

When our oldest daughter, who was then four [years old], fifteen years ago, it was time for her to go to preschool. Bill and I completely knew exactly where. We agreed as a couple, we wanted our daughter to go [to that school] from preschool to fifth grade.

He was CEO of Microsoft, and I was at home at that point, with two children, but I could see for me the amount of driving [required]. It was going to be thirty minutes each way every day to take her to the school way away from our house, and I said to Bill, "Well, let's wait. Let's just wait two more years, and in first grade, we'll put her first grade to fifth, and [in the meantime] we'll put her instead in our neighborhood school."

And he said, "No no no, let's start her now."

And I said, "It's too much driving."

And he said, "Well, it's so important to me, Melinda, I will drive her two days a week." That meant forty-five minutes of driving [for him] because it went away from our house, back past our house, back to Microsoft.

So he started doing this two days a week. Well, two weeks into school, there was this huge fuss amongst the women in the classroom, the moms, and I said, "What's going on?"

And they said, "We've all gone home and said to our husbands, 'If Bill Gates, the CEO of Microsoft, is driving his daughter to school, you darned well better drive our kids to school.'"

And I was actually kind of angry at that point, because I thought, "Well, I just negotiated this with Bill. It was what was right for me." But it created a cultural change. We didn't expect that to happen, but you know what? A lot more dads started showing up with their kids at school.

And that's what I mean about public change. You do it in your home, but then you actually role model it. and for us it was kind of indirect, we didn't mean to be, but it was the right thing for us as a couple, and it ended up being the right thing for that school.

I was talking with a colleague of mine, and it turns out that we both volunteered to be the class parent for our respective kid's elementary school classes. The class parent is usually the mother of one of the students, and a lot of the materials sent to the class parents simply assume that the class parents is one of the mothers.

¹ It sounds like I'm shilling for the boss, but nobody asked me to do this. I just like the story.

Comments (24)
  1. No you are not shilling, What you are doing is demonstrating the power of being the boss; it gives you economic freedom.

    A very senior manager could have said: “I’ll be able to get the car to take him / her on these days a week; but I can’t guarantee to be there myself
    A junior manager could have said: “Well I’ll do what I can but I can’t guarantee any particular date – I might be needed.
    An employee would have said: These are my hours: I will talk to the boss and see how to re-arrange them as much as is possible.
    But Bill, since it was his company could say: “I’ll do two days a week; the buggers can arrange themselves around me.

    No doubt there is a moral there – not sure if I can see it. It’s not the old joke about “Where does a two ton elephant sit”.

    1. Andreas says:

      It’s funny how different two people can read the same article. I haven’t really thought about it before but I realized I kind of always assumed that the Gates would have enough drivers to take any member of the family wherever they needed to be. So I think it’s kind of bad-ass that they drive themselves. I don’t think this illustrates the power of being the boss of a big company it’s more like the power of being the boss of your own life. You can get up an hour earlier or whatever needed to fulfill your other obligations as well. You don’t need to make other people wait just because you bring your kids to school.

    2. pete says:

      It’s a nice story, but this was exactly my reaction too. When the kids need to be at school for 8:45, it’s a tough commute to be at work for 9. When both parents are working, you’ve got to work something out…

    3. George says:

      Agreed. However, employees of sufficient value can commonly work something out. And it is most probable that those sending their kids to same kids as the Gates girl are in a pretty good position in their careers.

    4. Yet according to the story, more dads started taking their kids to school, so it wasn’t as impossible as you make it sound. (Also, what George said.)

      1. Chris says:

        If the big boss does it (and maybe other people of “sufficient value”, it’s harder to crack down on employees with less value for doing the same. And we don’t know the full story. Maybe the husbands did it despite their boss not liking it, and got yelled at, or denied a promotion, or even fired a month later. And the moms might be at home chilling or sleeping in, or go shopping with their friends every day.

        Maybe the husband was sleeping in, and the mom finally can get up at 6 instead of 4 because she doesn’t need to do [whatever] before she takes their kid to school, but we don’t know that. So yes, it’s certainly not impossible per se, and certainly shouldn’t automatically be excused from stuff like this, but like Simon and pete said it’s also not necessarily as easy for everyone as it was for the Gates.

        1. zboot says:

          You’re making a pretty big assumption, that Bill Gates was the “big boss” for all the male parents at that school who started driving their kids.

          I’m not sure that you can argue that because some “big boss” somewhere starts doing something, people at other organizations suddenly get cover to do the same.

  2. Dave says:

    Why not just take a bus? When I was a kid I went to a school some distance away because the local school sucked, and so did the next one along, and by the time you got to one my parents liked it was about an hour by bus each way. So I got a lot of reading done.

    My parents would have looked at me as if I was insane if I’d expected to be driven to school.

    1. Most parents in the United States are not comfortable having a four-year-old taking a public bus by themselves.

      1. Kevin Fee says:

        He meant a school bus. There are school buses for (some) preschools, particularly ones that are also elementary schools.

        1. zboot says:

          Private schools where I grew up didn’t have buses. Being driven to school by your parent was a requirement if you were young or didn’t live near the school.

  3. cheong00 says:

    Are schoolbus common in U.S.? When I was in primary school in Hong Kong, there were multiple schoolbus lines driving students to school from locations > 30 minutes walk time.

    There are school van for kindergarten at the ground floor of opposite building from where I live.

    1. Buses are common in public schools, but not private schools. Private schools draw students from a large geographic region, and sending a bus of 40 kids on a two-hour route is not going to be well-received.

      1. Brian_EE says:

        Ditto. I drive my 4-year old 35 minutes to private preschool (it’s all day long) each day. My saving grace is it’s 2 minutes from my work. On the flip side, my high-school-aged kids catch the bus to public school – which is what my youngest will do next year.

        1. BZ says:

          The private school I went to had school buses. However, it cost extra, and there was a single pickup point for each region (the drop-offs were at the houses), so some parents had to drop their children off. My parents did so jointly. Mind you, it was a 2-minute drive and sometimes we just walked. I don’t know of anyone in that school whose parents drove them all the way to the school. At least one person took the train, and once we were old enough, a handful of people drove themselves.

          Since it was a religious school, we had a few hours of school on Sunday as well. There were no buses, so we did carpools instead. I’m pretty sure it was always my dad who drove when it was our turn, while my mom went shopping, but then there was nowhere pressing for either of them to go.

  4. Han says:

    With all due respect – this is not change. This is virtue signaling.

    First comes the assumption that every household is some kind of dictatorship where fathers somehow force the mothers into the difficult, laborious task of shuttling their children to/from school. Secondly, whose business is that other than the families themselves? What perceived benefit is it for society to dictate this in the first place? The fact is, out of all the problems faced by people in the world today, this ranks highly as one of the most superficial out there.

    I noticed a number of people talking about busing, which is a great question to ask. I live in South Florida where, despite seeing a wealth of school buses everywhere, many people will endure what can be a 30-minute queue to pick up their children. There are a number of reasons for this, but some of the more nefarious reasons have to do with the fact that the buses are overcrowded, and a lot of bullying and bad behavior takes place on these buses. Even if we could use the bus system, most of us wouldn’t. That’s part of a bigger discussion regarding cultural decline in America – something people would rather paper over by talking about Bill Gates or even senior managers at one of the world’s wealthiest companies “changing the world” by driving his children to school twice a week. I don’t mean to target you personally on that one, but it’s true. Maybe this fits the nice neighborhoods you all live in up there, but it certainly doesn’t apply for most of us.

    1. user says:

      To expand on this a bit, “both parents taking turns driving their kids to school” isn’t even the end goal, so I’m not sure what achieving this is supposed to demonstrate. Equality is about everyone being able to do what they do best without discrimination, it doesn’t mean everyone must share in every single task equally. Whether mom or dad “should” take their children to school depends on the individual family situation.

      Having more dads do it isn’t necessarily better or worse, you really have to consider the circumstances. Which parent has more free time or a schedule that better fits the school’s? Which parent has an easier commute route? Which parent prefers to spend more time with their kids in the car (maybe because they’re unable to spend more time otherwise)? And so on. Maybe the answer is “dad”, and I agree 100% that it isn’t right to assign all childcare tasks to mom. But maybe the answer is different, and it also isn’t right to say the dad must do it just because Bill Gates is doing it.

      1. zboot says:

        Nobody said that dad must do it because Bill Gates did it. What was said is that the conversation actually happened with families deciding to do it, rather than everyone assuming that it was the role to the mother and not bothering to even consider whether spending more time with children by driving them to school was even something fathers could do.

  5. Rick says:

    Beyond the lesson that is taught here, am I the only one who thinks 30 minutes isn’t far at all? I drive an hour to work each way and I don’t complain about it. I’m more worried for the influence that kind of thinking impacts a child than I am about a stay at home parent complaining of having to leave their house.

  6. Sam Wilson says:

    I started working in the healthcare industry a little over a year ago. Our company works a lot with data derived from the activities of nurses, as directed by doctors and pharmacists.

    Along the way, I noticed that everyone in the field refers to those occupations using specific pronouns: nurses are always feminine, doctors and pharmacists are always male. Which is interesting, because many of the doctors and pharmacists I’ve encountered in this process have actually been female and, more and more, I am meeting and getting to know male nurses.

    I’ve been working very hard to monitor and edit my own language, and working to ensure that the messaging around the product I am developing, utilizes gender neutral pronouns when discussing people acting in certain roles.

    p.s., another trend I am seeing is that more and more of my male colleagues who work from home are becoming the primary caregiver and social coordinator for their children. You aren’t alone!

  7. Stan Thomas says:

    “It’s too much driving.”. Darn right. There’s too much driving in the World. I walked to school from age 4. Then caught the bus to go to high school. But as more and more parents ferry their kids around there are fewer and fewer kids walking. So it becomes self-fulfilling that it’s dangerous for a young child to walk … well pretty much anywhere anymore. Obesity, global warming, congestion, auto crashes. Shall I go on. Bravo Bill for engaging with your kids but I’d only be impressed if you had walked or cycled with them.

  8. sh_code says:

    “He was CEO of Microsoft, and I was at home at that point, with two children”
    “It was going to be thirty minutes each way every day”

    excuse me, but this kinda reduces to a point of “I’m doing all the work of being a stay at home mum, you can’t expect me to do the extra work of driving our child 30 minutes to school just because you’ve made our family multibillionaires! Where’s the fairness of equal contribution in that?”

    which is extremely stupid and unfair from her. and, when we add she was willing to change her school from what they decided is best to just what’s closest because of her laziness, it’s also pretty badly selfish.

    i’m sorry, but that’s all I see in this.
    also that Bill was willing to stomach all that for the sake of his children’s education. Which in part explains why HE’s the CEO. The ability to stomach selfish bullshit for the sake of more important and greater good, however he defines the “good”.

    1. sh_code says:

      *1 hour drive. still the same point. mother unwilling to drive 1 hour a day for the good of her child.

    2. sh_code says:

      other moms then just saw a suitable psychological leverage for their own selfish laziness, that’s all.
      extra sad.

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