In Summary
  • Are beauty and brains mutually exclusive, and do women really have to dumb it down to get ahead?
  • Women in Kenya are still more likely to be judged by their physical features than by the content of their brains. Western societies, where men and women are more likely to be equal, see less emphasis on a woman’s looks, with polled men increasingly reporting they preferred brains over beauty, and more households having female providers and house-husbands. 
  • Dianne insists that women do themselves an injustice by failing to use their “feminine wiles where necessary. I’m not saying you should sleep your way up the corporate ladder. But if a fitting dress and a charming smile will get you through the door long enough for you to pitch your proposal and get your project rolling, where’s the harm in that?”

We meet in one of the many new coffee houses in Westlands. Dianne (not her real name), struts in and rapidly plants air kisses on each of my cheeks; several patrons’ heads turn towards us. Seemingly unaware of the attention, she sits, rummages through her bag and, looking up at me, asks if I mind if she smoked. I say no, absolutely not. Cigarette fitted into a golden filter, smoke lazily wafting over and disappearing behind her long, silky, jet-black hair weave, she leans back and shoots a disarming smile.

Dianne is a classic beauty – flawless, caramel-glazed skin, a matte earthy lipstick over her full lips, eyes that exude a piercing (and mischievous) charm and a body, because of a frame shy of 6 feet, one would be fooled to think was slender if not for a subtle voluptuousness accentuated by lazy, white linen pants. She’s effortlessly attractive.

At 37 years of age, Dianne, who holds a degree in an industrial science, is also, in her own words, “a very successful business woman.” When her ex-husband founded a company that provided telecommunications infrastructure for network operators, Dianne says she happened to be in the right place at the right time (i.e. married to him).

After that, she slowly but surely navigated her way from ‘wife’ to a managerial post in his company. “You ask me whether beauty and brains are mutually exclusive,” she mutters amid a puff, “I say no. People assume that just because I wear long hair (weaves) and I smoke and I do not conceal my sensuality, they assume I can’t read or write – that all I have to do is sit there and look pretty while (foreign) men take care of me.”

While Dianne admits that, 10 years ago, she had gotten her ex-husband’s attention primarily because of her looks, she however argues, “that’s just what it takes to get them (men) to notice you long enough for you to slowly unpack your brains. This world, my industry especially, is ran by men. If you are starting out and sitting there armed with nothing but your brains, you’ll be sitting for a long minute.”


“I don’t think the argument is whether beautiful women are capable of being smart,” says 47-year-old Micheal Mureithi. “That’s a simplistic argument.”

Mureithi, a finance manager in a parastatal, argues that many women are both. “I can barely keep my head straight in my post-graduate class – we have four women in a class of 15 – sassy, gorgeous, independent and a little intimidating to be honest. So beauty and brains are not mutually exclusive. At the end of the day, it depends on the woman’s goals and what they want to capitalise on. For example I find it interesting that none of the four women in my class are married – so maybe their ‘brains’ aren’t working out on that front, or maybe it’s not their goal to get married. “

Nevertheless, Mureithi describes the prospect of women having to dumb it down in order to get married as ‘dumb’. This is an interesting response from him; when I ask him whether he would rather marry an extremely gorgeous woman who was not intelligent or an extremely intelligent woman who was not easy on the eye, he quips, “Can I marry both? – the first one for my arm and the other for my firm…”

A recent study at the University of York in England concluded that the higher a country’s gender inequality, the more value the society attaches to a woman’s appearance and the less the value of  her intellect. This study, carried out by psychologists, found that societies with higher gender inequality tend to be more invested in ‘traditional evolutionary traits’. Women prefer wealthy men who can provide for the family and men prefer ‘young, curvy women’ because this femininity announces their fertility and good housekeeping abilities. 

The UNDP measures a country’s standing in gender inequality by looking at reproductive health, empowerment and labour opportunities and participation. From the data, they come up with the Gender Inequality Index (GII). A perfect GII would be 0.000, which no country has achieved yet. The current data (from 2014) ranks Slovenia at the top with a GII score of 0.016. Kenya is at number 126 with a 0.522 GII. Yemen, ranked last at number 155, has a 0.744 GII.

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