Experts advocate for 'basic set of metrics' to define women's economic empowerment

Data2X and CGD’s new compendium of tools aims to promote shared understanding among women’s economic empowerment stakeholders. Photo by: Joe Saade / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The growing number of tools to measure women’s economic empowerment makes it nearly impossible for programs to compare work across contexts, according to several gender data experts.

On Wednesday, Data2X and the Center for Global Development launched new work compiling this proliferation of tools. The compendium reviews 20 population monitoring tools and 15 monitoring and evaluation tools in order to help researchers and practitioners determine which tools and indicators are most useful for their purposes. By consolidating existing measurement tools in one place, Data2X and CGD aim to promote shared understanding among women’s economic empowerment stakeholders.

Many gender data experts see the need to harmonize indicators, but debate continues over how realistic it is to unify metrics on such a complex issue across different contexts.

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The new compendium aims to help the gender data and women’s economic empowerment communities to align on standards, promote data transparency, and strive for harmonization of indicators, said Mayra Buvinic, a senior fellow at CGD and Data2X, who presented the compendium at an online event.

“Harmonization is worth the effort, particularly for tracking progress at the international level and pushing accountability,” Buvinic told Devex.

“Ultimately, what you want to do is see which countries are doing well, which projects are not doing well, and then hold people accountable. You cannot hold people accountable if you don’t have good data. It is complicated, there are context issues, there are cultural issues, and the subjective side of empowerment is very important but difficult to measure. But there are questions about self-efficacy and self-confidence that I think are pretty cross-cultural,” Buvinic said.

Even within an institution, let alone across the sector, it is hard to come to a consensus on how to measure women’s economic empowerment, Buvinic added.

“I don’t think we should strive for every researcher, implementer, or investor to work from exactly the same 20 questions, all posed in the same way.”

— Megan O’Donnell, assistant director for the gender program, Center for Global Development

Thomas Bossuroy, a senior economist at the World Bank, said he and his peers do not have a harmonized way to define, measure, or track progress on this issue.

He said many of his colleagues see it as necessary to develop a common practice around diagnostics of women’s economic empowerment.

“Economic empowerment is a complex concept — touching on a wide range of aspects of people’s lives and interactions with their communities — which makes it all the more important for researchers, practitioners, donors, and private sector actors working in this space to have a relatively consistent idea of how WEE is defined and what it entails, at least in broad terms,” Megan O’Donnell, assistant director for the gender program and senior policy analyst at CGD, told Devex via email.

“This allows us to guard against the risk of equating ‘empowerment’ with something much less holistic, such as when an organization claims to have ‘empowered’ X number of women by providing them with a 1-day skills training,” O’Donnell continued.

“The more specific we get in our definitions and our metrics, the easier it will be to gauge whether development efforts aimed at promoting WEE are actually making a difference. And to be able to compare progress across contexts, a basic set of unified metrics would be helpful.”

But context matters, said Shagun Sabarwal, director of policy, training, and communications at J-PAL South Asia.

“How do you define what really matters for a woman?” she asked during the event.

Without the right measurement, it will be difficult to identify vulnerabilities, and even when programs are working, it may be impossible to capture the impact they are having, Sabarwal said.

She said that when researchers try to minimize this complexity, it comes at a cost, because they fail to capture important nuances. Despite her call for context, Sabarwal said she considers harmonization a worthwhile effort, and that the compendium is “an excellent starting point.”

Meanwhile, Caren Grown, director of the World Bank’s gender group, said she is skeptical of moving toward harmonization.

“There are different constituencies, different fields, different purposes,” she said.

But Grown did articulate the need for a minimum standard for women’s economic empowerment and agreed with other experts’ comments on the value of forming a community of practice on measurement.

If the tools used to measure women’s economic empowerment are developed in silos, so too will approaches to research, advocacy, and implementation, O’Donnell of CGD warned.

“I don’t think we should strive for every researcher, implementer, or investor to work from exactly the same 20 questions, all posed in the same way to all women they aim to reach, and stop there,” she told Devex. “Specific questions posed to women in different contexts will need to be adjusted to fit what they consider to be empowerment and its component parts.”

She said she appreciated Grown’s framing of “minimums” at the event.

“What is a basic set of metrics that the WEE community agrees should be applicable across contexts? I’d say areas to prioritize include measurement of women’s time spent in paid and unpaid work and the income they earn. And as Caren mentioned, ensuring that we’re not just measuring how these things change over time, but also how they compare against men’s income, unpaid work, etc.”

O’Donnell said she hopes the compendium can serve as a resource as the sector considers what this set of “minimums” should be.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.