Bill and Melinda Gates' decision to get divorced after 27 years together came as a shock to many this week, but it's not the first time we have caught a glimpse of the private tensions inside their very public partnership.

One of those glimpses came two years ago, when Mrs Gates was interviewed on Australian radio. At the time, she was promoting her book The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, which contained some unusually candid anecdotes from her personal life.

Mrs Gates spoke to Triple J host Tom Tilley, who now hosts The Briefing, a daily news podcast with Southern Cross Austereo.

She was frank about the challenges that came with being married to a man as powerful as Mr Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft - though the hurdles she described might have sounded familiar to many less famous couples.

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"I know you're a private person, and revealing a lot of the personal stuff in this book took a lot of consideration," Mr Tilley said.

"But you do go into your marriage a little bit, because I guess it fits with the overall theme of the book, which is about the power dynamics between men and women.

"And you talk about a moment where you asked yourself, would you ever be able to have an equal partnership with a man like Bill Gates, who has such a strong voice. Were there times when you didn't feel like it was an equal partnership?"

Mrs Gates answered firmly and without hesitation.

"Yes. Definitely," she said.

"And we talked about that at home. You know, if it came up in a dinner where I felt like he talked over me, even if it was inadvertent, I might let it go during the dinner - let's say it's a small dinner party - but there was no way I was going to let that go when we got home, or when we got in the car, to be frank.

"And so over time, he had to learn. And part of it was, he was just used to being the person - I mean, he was running Microsoft. He was in the position of power. So he wasn't used to sharing power.

"Or he wasn't used to even understanding that when he walks into a room or sits at a table, everyone assumes he's the smartest person in the room. That's not always true. So he had to learn to make room for me, which he absolutely does now.

"But those are learned behaviours. And sometimes I was heated in the way I took them on, sometimes I would do it with humour, sometimes I could be more neutral. They weren't always pleasant. But he understood.

"The reason I bring that up though, is every man and woman or partnership needs to have these conversations, and they need to be safe, and they're not always easy, but until we have these conversations in our home, we don't then fully live them out in our communities and our workplaces.

"That is why I used my own personal example there, even though it wasn't the easiest thing to write about."

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Mrs Gates, a 56-year-old computer scientist, met Mr Gates in 1987, shortly after she started working at Microsoft. They were married on New Year's Day in 1994.

In the subsequent decades, they raised three children together. Evenly splitting the work involved in their professional and home lives was no easy task.

"You talk about the 'merit' argument, which is often used when talking about power dynamics between men and women, and you say that the merit argument is often used to unfairly maintain power hierarchies," Mr Tilley said, referring to Mrs Gates' book.

"But when you talk about removing hierarchy in your relationship with your husband, you say that you've shedded hierarchy except for natural, flexible, alternating hierarchies based on talent, interest or experience.

"So it seems like you've sort of found a way to bring the talent or the merit argument in while still breaking down hierarchies, which sounds like quite a tricky thing to do."

"It is! It is a little bit tricky. But it works for us," Mrs Gates told him.

"And I think it can work for other people. You have to look at your whole life. For us, we had to look at our home life, we had to look at what we were both trying to accomplish in the community - some of it we do together, some work we do separately.

"We only have so much time in a day. Every human being only has so much time, even if you sleep an hour less. And so how are we going to divide that up?

"And at home, for all partnerships at home, there are caregiving responsibilities that are loving, that you want to do, and there are other quite frankly menial tasks that somebody has to do. And so you have to figure out how to split those up in a way that feels fair to both parties. And that can change over time.

"Those have to be ongoing conversations, and that's what we've eventually, successfully done in our marriage. But it wasn't easy at the get go."

 

Mrs Gates said "both partners" often enter relationships assuming the woman will do more of the menial tasks at home, with significant consequences as time goes back.

"Over the course of her lifetime, it's actually seven years of unpaid labour in the home. I don't know about you, but with seven years, I could get a couple of degrees," she quipped.

"So we need to rethink those assumptions. Because partly men have merit in the workplace because they're not having to carry such a big burden at home. They can spend an extra hour on the presentation in the evening instead of going home and caring for the kids. There are just a million things like that.

"That's why it's so important to look at that, and redistribute the workload."

Mrs Gates stressed that her husband was "super supportive" of her desire to return to the workforce after having children.

"He understood how much satisfaction and enjoyment I got from working."

On Monday, the couple released a joint statement announcing their divorce, saying they would continue to run their foundation together despite the split.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched in 2000, with ambitious goals that included the reduction of extreme poverty around the world. The pair are co-chairs and trustees of the organisation, which has more than $US50 billion in assets.

"After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage," they said.

"Over the last 27 years, we have raised three incredible children and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives.

"We continue to share a belief in that mission and will continue our work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.

"We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life."

Originally published as Telling sign in Melinda Gates interview