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Ask career women the right questions, avoid stereotypes

Saturday July 27 2019

women empowerment

Mrs Melinda Gates responds to questions during an interview at Hotel Fairmont The Norfolk in Nairobi on January 25, 2018. She is championing for women empowerment. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

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In her book, The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates makes a compelling case on how empowering women can change the world.

Through heart-wrenching and sometimes heart-warming stories and data, the book succeeds in proving that the phrase is not just an adage.

While the word ‘empowering’ is problematic in some ways — for example in how it automatically insinuates that the women are yoked, the idea of lifting them is timeless and applicable to women the world over.

Equality among genders remains a far-off dream and even powerful women like Melinda Gates, who is married to Bill Gates, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, understands too well what it’s like to live constantly in the “Mrs Gates” shadow.

For a woman’s worth, no matter her individual achievements, is often measured by who she’s married to, how many children she has – is she taking care of her children by herself? Does she help them with homework? – among other superwoman expectations.



Take the example of Mrs Gates, who is a former general manager at Microsoft. In 2000, she co-founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with her husband.

It’s the world’s largest private charitable organisation that has taken on various causes around the world and made a lasting difference in people’s lives.

But for a long time, the questions about the foundation by the press went to her husband, not her. Something that went on until she decided to do something about it after speaking to her husband about the same.

In the couple’s 2018 annual letter, Mr Gates said calling Melinda “the heart” of the organisation was “a bit of a stereotype”. Because he knew she is much more than that.

It’s an incontestable truth that some questions we ask women unequivocally reduce them to stereotypes, even if that woman is as powerful as Melinda Gates.


Closer home, powerful women – corporate superstars, glass ceiling breakers, business magnates, political pioneers, academic giants, badass women – are often asked questions, especially during media interviews, that represent a superwoman expectation. Sometimes in complete disregard of their outstanding achievements.

Here’s a typical question that carries all the weight of stereotypes against women: how do you balance between your career and home (meaning children, husband)?

The women will wince (internally, for they will not want people to see how uncomfortable the question makes them) and then give a well-rehearsed answer about lists, schedules, making time for homework, et cetera that will disarm viewers and make her reality melt away; enough to fit into the superwoman stereotype box like she has been accustomed to doing.

Such politically correct answers, given by women who are most likely guilt-driven, might be meant to encourage others who are eyeing the C-suite from their wooden windows, but do they really?

The idea of balance – in the age of traffic jams, long working hours, side hustles, et cetera – is ridiculous.


Curiously, the question of balance between work and family is hardly ever posed to men. But perhaps it should; as men are an integral part of a woman’s success.

Of a family’s success. What about their paternal duties? One would imagine that asking men such questions too would be a good indication of the changing times, where men are expected to put in as much effort in bringing up a child as women do.

And burdening women with the question of balance disempowers those who, because of choice or fate, have no husband or children to speak of.

Conversely, the women who actually stay at home to look after their families are thought to be doing “what they were supposed to in the first place”.

If empowering women can indeed change the world, then let’s begin by asking them the right questions.

People go in the direction in which they are questioned and stereotypical questions – like those about family and children – basically relegate them to a corner where their outstanding achievements mean nothing.

The writer is the editor, Living Magazine; [email protected]