Future of Work

Melinda Gates: America's workaholic culture needs to end

Office workers sit at their desks across the street from the 2017 "Congress of Tomorrow" Joint Republican Issues Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. January 25, 2017.  REUTERS/Mark Makela - RC132327D270

This workaholic culture is particularly harmful to women. Image: REUTERS/Mark Makela

Julie Bort
Editor, Business Insider
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Future of Work

Once upon a time, the American dream was built on the ideal that hard work leads to success. Today, with the rise of technology, the message has become: work all the time or you will fail, Melinda Gates argued in her first column on LinkedIn.

On Wednesday, Gates, one of the worlds' richest women, joined the professional social networking site (now owned by Microsoft) and immediately took corporations to task. This workaholic culture is particularly harmful to women, Gates writes, because women are still being told by society that home care and child care is up to them as well. She explained (emphasis ours):

"We’re sending our daughters into a workplace designed for our dads ..

The American workplace was set up based on the assumption that employees had partners who would stay home to do the unpaid work of caring for family and tending to the house. Of course, that wasn’t always true back then, and it definitely isn’t today ...

"In fact, most companies are asking employees to work more. The American workweek has soared from less than 40 hours to nearly 50 ...

"Technology has made it harder to pull away from our jobs, and easier to wonder whether a night off or a long weekend is damaging our careers."

The result is a work ethic that hurts everyone, writes Gates. When companies demand that employees work themselves into the ground, those that want to balance career with family life lean out. Some of them leave the corporate world altogether, which limits diversity.

And those who stay are less productive. They "have to dedicate so much energy to simply keeping their heads above water, instead of thinking of ways to create more value," she writes.

Have you read?

A monster Microsoft and Apple contributed to

There's some irony in this message because Microsoft started its days as one of those companies that demanded unrelenting hours.

Earlier this week, Bill Gates described those early days at Microsoft and at rival Apple, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal:

"I’ve come to value empathy more over the course of my career. Early on we were speed nuts, staying all night [at the office, thinking], 'Oh, you’re five percent slower as a programmer? You don’t belong here.' It was very hard-core. Steve Jobs, the way he ran the Mac team, he was an extreme example of that where—wow, they got a lot done, but within a year nobody was there."

Melinda Gates writes in her column that there are a number of other fixes to today's "work hard or fail" doctrine. For instance, companies that adopt diversity programs, offer mentorship, and have pro-family policies like paid family leave seem to do a better job keeping their talent, she writes.

What's interesting about Gates' column is that it runs counter to the typical message when it comes to diversity. The classic response is to blame the "pipeline" problem, meaning there just aren't enough women and minorities going into the field to hire.

But Gates is examining the other side of the problem: why people don't stay.

And that's not just about teaching more kids to code, in the hopes that more of them will make tech their careers. It's also about undoing the "you don't belong here" philosophy that was, early on, embedded into the culture.

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