A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

The powerful thing that happens when you ask a woman to share her story

Illustration from video about asking women their stories
It’s one thing to read a statistic about the tens of thousands of children who die each year of diarrhea. It’s another thing entirely to sit down with a group of women in a rural village and hear from one mother after another about what it was like to lose a child to diarrheal disease.

In the nearly two decades since we started our foundation, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that behind every statistic is a story.

Data plays a critical role in driving progress. It helps foundations like ours set priorities, measure results, and learn from our mistakes. (That’s why we invest so heavily in collecting data and in closing data gaps where they exist.)

But it takes more than numbers to understand the world around us. We also need qualitative data—a very dry term for the very human act of asking people about their lives.

In 2016, on a trip to one of the most impoverished parts of Nairobi, I met a data collector named Christine who goes door-to-door in her community gathering data on the women who live there. Christine told me that many of the women she meets through her work have never been asked questions about themselves before. For most of history, the voices of the world’s poorest, most marginalized women have gone ignored.

But something powerful happens when you ask a woman to tell her story. When Christine knocks on a woman’s door and explains that she’s there to learn more about her, it tells that woman that she matters—and that the world cares about her life.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I’m thinking about Christine and the women whose lives she has touched. I’m grateful to her for the reminder that sometimes, the most forceful statement of support we can make for a woman is the one we make by listening.