Bill and Melinda Gates, darlings of the philanthropy world, are suddenly under the lurid gaze of a public hungry for more details about the onrushing divorce of one of the world's very wealthiest couples.
What's coming out as journalists investigate doesn't look great for Bill Gates. According to reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, most of the details of which are attributed to anonymous sources, Gates made advances to women he met on the job, had an affair with a Microsoft employee 20 years ago, made questionable decisions when it came to his money manager's sexual harassment case, and spent a little too much time palling around with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Melinda Gates, on the other hand, seems to have been an advocate for women in private as well as in public, and even when it was inconvenient for her husband, illustrating the importance of having people who actually live their values in positions of power.
Their divorce touches on several of our most salient cultural and political issues, and puts the focus on some of our most rapidly-changing social norms.
But how much of this is the public's business?
The couple's impending split, and Bill Gates' reported behavior in particular, walk into a gray zone of post-#MeToo reporting and discourse.
"Bill Gates Had a Reputation for Questionable Behavior Before Divorce," the New York Times headline announced -- not illegal or predatory behavior, just "questionable." The behavior, according to the Times account (citing "people with direct knowledge of his overtures"), involved Bill Gates having an affair two decades ago and awkwardly asking other women out to dinner.
Of the 2000 affair (which prompted an internal investigation in 2019 by Microsoft, followed by Gates' resignation from the board of directors), a spokesperson for Gates told the WSJ, "there was an affair almost 20 years ago which ended amicably. Bill's decision to transition off the board was in no way related to this matter."
The other women he asked out were reportedly uncomfortable and either ignored him or said no, and there apparently were no personal or professional repercussions. In one instance, Bill Gates reportedly told a woman he was pursuing that she could "pretend it never happened" if the ask made her uncomfortable. She reportedly did just that.
Gates' spokeswoman has objected to the coverage, telling the Times, "It is extremely disappointing that there have been so many untruths published about the cause, the circumstances and the timeline of Bill Gates' divorce," adding that the "claim of mistreatment of employees is also false," and that "the rumors and speculation surrounding Gates' divorce are becoming increasingly absurd and it's unfortunate that people who have little to no knowledge of the situation are being characterized as 'sources.'"
Gates' alleged behavior may put him squarely in the category of a lout breaking his marital vows -- although it's unclear whether his wife knew or cared about his behavior, or what the rules of their marriage were -- but it doesn't appear to put him in the same category as a Harvey Weinstein or other sexual predators unmasked by the #MeToo movement who made women's careers contingent on offering them sexual favors.
Complicating matters is the fact that behavior characterized as questionable hewed closely to Bill Gates' approach in meeting and marrying Melinda Gates in the first place: She was a 23-year-old fresh out of an MBA program; he was in his early 30s and her boss, and he pursued her at work. That became part of their meet-cute origin story.
In one telling, this is evidence of "questionable" behavior to come: a 30-something boss pursuing a 20-something new employee, using his position for romantic gain. In another, though, the judgment of his alleged actions is evidence of an emerging streak of puritanism among progressives, the repurposing of a consensual relationship that culminated in marriage as exploitative because it involved a boss and an underling.
A big difference between now and then, of course, is that Bill Gates was single when he pursued Melinda French, and married when he pursued other women. And that is indeed a moral wrong.
But it raises challenging questions: Is #MeToo about holding predatory men to account and shining light on all of the ways in which men too often use their professional power to reduce women to sexual objects, and then penalizing them if they don't comply?
Or is #MeToo about enforcing a new (or possibly very old) moral code about sexual propriety?
The fact is, #MeToo is rightly focused not just on sex, but on power, and in this case, Bill was the boss and the most powerful person in just about any given room. But the reality is also that people the world over meet romantic (and often purely sexual) partners at work every day of the year, and not infrequently one party is more senior than the other. A power differential can create the conditions for predation, and certainly many men have used their professional power to manipulate and prey on women. But it seems like a vast overreach to say that a romantic relationship (or romantic overture) made at work by a person more senior to a person more junior is predatory by definition.
By all accounts, Bill Gates' actions were clumsy and uncomfortable and grist for the gossip mill, but he appears to have taken "no" for an answer. He did not, by any report, force women to do things they didn't want to do, and did not level consequences at women who rejected or ignored him.
If the argument is that all workplace relationships are wrong, Bill Gates clearly violated the new norm. But if we accept that workplace romances and sexual interactions are going to happen as long as human beings are the ones occupying workplaces, and that the key is mutual consent and no one abusing their position or power over another, then the Gates story becomes much more pedestrian.
Which sends us back to the question of whether this is any of the public's business, and whether writing about it in the language of #MeToo conflates issues that shouldn't be conflated.
Just as culturally salient as the question of sex, work and power is the role Melinda Gates reportedly played behind the scenes. When the Gates' money manager was accused of sexual harassment, Bill Gates believed the problem was solved by a legal settlement and a non-disclosure agreement, according to reporting in The New York Times, citing two people familiar with the matter. Melinda Gates disagreed -- she wanted an independent investigation, and she reportedly got one, although the money manager kept his job, the Times said.
Melinda Gates' public-facing work with the Gates Foundation has focused on women and girls, including pushing for broader access to family planning tools and economic opportunities. Her response to the sexual harassment case illustrates how important it is to have leaders of integrity.
She seems to have also demonstrated this when she reportedly drew a hard line over her husband's repeated meetings with Jeffrey Epstein, after the Times published, in October 2019, details of their relationship. That New York Times article said: "beginning in 2011, Bill Gates met with Jeffrey Epstein on numerous occasions," according to interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with the relationship and documents reviewed by the Times. Commenting for that article, Bill Gates' spokeswoman told the Times that the pair had met to discuss philanthropy. "Bill Gates regrets ever meeting with Epstein and recognizes it was an error in judgment to do so," the spokeswoman said.
That's when Melinda Gates started making calls to the divorce lawyers, according to the Times. Whatever her motivation, the message she's sending is clear: She's not tolerating a husband who hangs out with a convicted sex offender credibly accused of child sex trafficking. (If there were ever a good line for a woman to draw in the sand, that's it).
Clearly, Melinda Gates is winning in the court of public opinion (and in my personal opinion). And I, too, am fascinated by the story of how and why the Gates marriage came to a dramatic end. But I also wonder whether the Gates divorce is the subject of such scrutiny because the issues it raises make us legitimately entitled to the marital details of one of the world's most powerful couples -- or whether this is pure tabloid rubber-necking under the guise of legitimate political and cultural inquiry.