We need better data to support women’s economic empowerment

This blog is written by Léa Fuiret, Junior Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre. It is the eighth in a new blog series on women, work and economic empowerment.  


Shopkeeper in Depok, Indonesia. Photo: UN Women/Adrianus Mulya

Shopkeeper in Depok, Indonesia. Photo: UN Women/Adrianus Mulya

Today, women’s economic empowerment is at the top of political agendas. We see it firmly anchored in the SDGs, the G20’s gender targets and the UN High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. The economic case to act is very strong, with new evidence from the OECD Development Centre suggesting that USD 12 trillion could be added to global GDP if we reduced gender inequality.

So what do we mean by women’s economic empowerment?

Women’s economic empowerment is often confused with solely increasing women’s labour market participation. Yet, can we really call women “empowered” if they hold low-paid, informal, vulnerable jobs, or do not have a say in how their income is spent? Is it empowerment when the gender wage gap remains at 23% globally (close to 15% for OECD economies), and when harassment or discriminatory norms limit the opportunities open to women?

Women’s economic empowerment is not just about more women in the labour force. It is first and foremost about ensuring that economies work for women, rather than the other way around. It is about offering women and men decent paid work, compatible with their shared domestic responsibilities as well as opportunities for leisure and learning.

We still have much more to learn about what works to support women’s economic empowerment, in part because of a lack of accurate and reliable data on what is holding women back. Not only do we need more data to measure current gender gaps in economic opportunities and outcomes, but we need the right data.

To advance this agenda, current survey instruments need to be more ambitious. This implies collecting not only sex-disaggregated indicators, but also data on specific barriers and issues affecting women such as:

  • Social norms, which shape acceptable roles for women and men. Entrenched gender stereotypes often restrain women to caregiving and men to breadwinning, limiting what they can do and what kind of jobs they can have;
  • Time use, to recognise the disproportionate amount of time women spend on unpaid care and domestic work;
  • Women’s over-representation in unpaid and informal work, inequalities in wage earnings as well as the stability and security of work;
  • Social protection and pension coverage; and
  • Decision-making power within households and in public affairs.

Such data also needs to be sufficiently disaggregated to measure intersecting inequalities affecting certain women, such as those living with a disability or who belong to a marginalized ethnic minority.

We thus need to collect data at the local level to know what women want for themselves and why they are not getting it.

Let me give an example. A recent OECD Development Centre survey on social norms in Burkina Faso shed some light on the underlying causes of gender inequalities in that country. In terms of economic participation and opportunities, Burkina Faso is still far from parity: women participate less than men in the labour market and earn 66% of men’s wages for similar work. And guess what? The majority of its population – women as well as men – have narrow views on the roles women should play in the economy. Given that 80% of men and women declare a woman’s role is to take care of housework and children, it is not surprising that women in Burkina Faso spend seven times more time on unpaid care work than men. More than half of the population believe men would prefer their wives to stay at home rather than work for pay outside the home. Moreover, 92% of the population agree that a man’s role is to support his family financially, and one-third believe that a ‘stay-at-home’ man is not worthy of esteem.

Women who still want and have time to undertake paid work despite their domestic work load face additional barriers. Some 45% of people in Burkina Faso (42% of women and 51% of men) think it is not up to a woman to decide to pursue paid employment outside the home. Some 10% of men would not agree to their wife owning a business, and 25% of men think a woman is not able to run a business as well as a man.

Collecting data must be an integral part of policies aiming to achieve economic empowerment. Measuring the realities and barriers that women face in their daily lives in Burkina Faso and elsewhere will provide a deeper understanding of how discrimination against women affects their economic empowerment, allowing opportunities to sharpen policy responses.

Policies will only be as good as the data used to inform them. That is why investing in regular data collection is paramount. If countries are to deliver on their SDG commitments, increasing the existing budgets of national statistical offices is vital. In 2015, international support for statistics comprised 0.30% of Official Development Assistance. With so many outstanding questions about women’s economic empowerment, it is clear that more resources are required. Better data leads to better policies that can truly “empower” women economically. This, ultimately, is a win-win for economies and more equitable and inclusive societies.

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