Bill and Melinda Gates divorce opens gates to a dishwashing debate in Vietnam

On May 3, billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates, co-founders of one of the world’s largest private charitable foundations, filed for divorce after 27 years, but pledged to continue their philanthropic work together.

In a joint petition for dissolution of marriage, the couple asserted their legal union was "irretrievably broken," but said they had reached an agreement on how to divide their marital assets.

While the socioeconomic ramifications of the divorce have become talk of the town in many places, many Vietnamese tongues are wagging about something else that is closer to home.

They are debating the merits and demerits of a man doing the dishes.

The debate has been sparked by Gates’s professed love for dish washing, with several Vietnamese male netizens "taking the cue" and quipping that sharing housework does not seem to save a marriage.

"I do the dishes every night - other people volunteer but I like the way I do it," Bill Gates had said during a Reddit AMA in 2014.

Nguyen Thanh Dat, a white collar worker in Hanoi, commented on his Facebook page, said: "A man enjoying washing dishes for his wife and still ends up divorcing... it seems doing dishes does not help a marriage last."

Many other men agreed, joking they would not do the dishes hereafter because "even a rich man like Bill Gates cannot save his marriage by washing dishes."

Microsoft technology advisor Bill Gates and his wife Melinda leave on the second day of the Allen and Co. media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho July 10, 2014. Photo by Reuters/Rick Wilking.

Microsoft technology advisor Bill Gates and his wife Melinda leave on the second day of the Allen and Co. media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho July 10, 2014. Photo by Reuters/Rick Wilking.

Many netizens would not be diverted by the humor.

"People should stop making jokes that men who do chores at home will not have a happy marriage. Such ridiculous assumptions make it harder to fight gender stereotypes," said An Nguyen, a teacher in Hanoi.

Some people commented that man doing housework was nothing to talk about, but sociologist Trinh Hoa Binh said that Bill Gates washing dishes had caught public attention because it is uncommon for a man to do house chores in Vietnam.

While there has been heightened awareness of gender equality in Vietnam for several years, the majority of women still get no housework help from men.

It is still the norm that Vietnamese husbands refuse to assist their wives with household chores.

In 2018, a survey by the Institute of Labor Science and Social Affairs and the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research revealed just three percent of respondent husbands washed dishes at home, and only 0.5 percent offered to do it regularly.

Notably, 20 percent said they’d never washed dishes, which, they consider a woman's job.

A report by the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs and ActionAid in 2016 showed Vietnamese women spend an average five hours a day on unpaid work like household chores and childcare, compared to three hours for men.

The report said that in some disadvantaged areas, women spend over eight hours a day on unpaid employment.

Even amid the Covid-19 pandemic, 20 percent of Vietnamese men have not done any housework even as the women carry the double burden of work and family responsibilities, according to a March report by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

"My husband is like a kid and cannot cook a proper meal for himself. I keep telling him that we must share these responsibilities equally," said Nguyen Huong Quynh, a banker in Hanoi.

It is still a widely prevalent practice that Vietnamese women do most of the housework, while fixing and maintaining equipment in the house are tasks reserved for men, according to a study done by the Institute for Social Development Studies.

"Traditional gender norms are clearly reflected in the way many people think – that a man like Bill Gates can easily free himself from doing house chores," said sociologist Binh.

A tired woman cleans her kitchen. Photo by Shutterstock/Makistock.

A tired woman cleans her kitchen. Photo by Shutterstock/Makistock.

Traditional gender norms

The notion of "men building the house and women making it a home," is deeply rooted in many Asian cultures including Vietnam.

In this patriarchal paradigm that is reinforced by Confucian traditions in Vietnam, cooking, washing clothes, doing the dishes, and taking care of children are a woman’s job.

It is commonly said that if women fail to manage their family affairs and housework, they are nothing, regardless of how successful they may be in their careers and society.

"Many people think women must strike a balance between her job and house chores, but the truth is they go to work and earn money just like their male counterparts," sociologist Binh said.

Though younger, educated men in urban areas are more open-minded, most Vietnamese men still hold on stereotypical beliefs that associate them with strength and external and more important affairs, and women with gentleness and the "inferior" yet strenuous jobs, several international studies have pointed out.

The ILO has noted that while the country is taking steps to tackle gender inequality, the situation remains dire in Vietnam as the majority of women stay trapped by the "invisible" area informal, unpaid employment.

Binh said: "If a man doing housework becomes a common thing here, people would not talk about Bill Gates's liking for dish washing, but that will not happen in the near future."



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