The haunting statistic

“Women provide 66% of the work, produce 50% of the food, but earn only 10% of the income and own 1% of the property.”

This statistic has been haunting me. In the lead up to the recent conference we had on the 9th of May, I have been researching the positive ripple effect of narrowing the gender gap. There is plenty of information, but lurking in most of it, I find this striking statistic. It might be in an Oxfam advert, a well-renowned book on poverty, the beginning of a speech by Clinton, a TEDX talk or even a UN report… It has a certain longevity, apparently originating from a 1978 ILO report; amazingly it seems to be immortal and is still being quoted today.

This very same statistic has also been the subject of some rather different reports which do not focus on the gender gap. The Washington Post has a fascinating article entitled ‘The zombie statistic about women’s share of income and property’ (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/03/03/the-zombie-statistic-about-womens-share-of-income-and-property/). Just thinking about the statistic logically, it does seem fairly obvious that it cannot be entirely right. Although the status of women in many developing countries is poor, things are certainly no longer quite that bad…

The WEF, for instance, conducted thorough research on the wage gap. In terms of paid work, women only work around two thirds of the hours that men work [1]. Of course, as I am sure you will be quick to point out, this is by no means all the work that people do. They cook, clean, care for children, look after the house. Indeed women do bear the brunt of this unpaid work, particularly in developing countries [2]. Overall this does mean that women do work more hours than men, but only fractionally so (25 minutes more in developed countries and 1 hour more in developing countries). The hours are not the issue here, it is more the lack of compensation and the precarious and occasional nature of the work that women are engaged in.

This demonstrates itself in the wage gap. Studies show that women on average earn 76% of men’s wages. This is partly as a result of the large burden of unpaid work that women bear and also because they are more likely to work in low productivity activities and in the informal sector (http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/economic-empowerment/facts-and-figures#notes). Taking these estimates suggests that women might only earn a third of the assets that men do, but this is by no means the tenth given in the statistic.

Women owning one percent of the world’s land seems to be a similarly misleading statistic. An interesting blog from Oxfam explains that women own rather a lot more land than might be expected. Statistics from 10 countries in Africa, a continent which has some of the worst land rights for women, show that 39% of women and 48% of men report owning land, but only 12% of women and 31% of men report owning land individually. Globally women own around 20% of agricultural land. Moreover the FAO explains that women are often restricted to poorer quality, smaller land parcels. Clearly women are again in a more precarious situation than men with regards to property rights, but one percent is an exaggeration. Nonetheless there is evidence to show that increasing women’s land access can fight poverty and hunger and leave them in a much less precarious economic position.

The real statistics do show that more needs to be done to empower women, to make them a more valued part of the work force, to give them rights to land. This would allow them to contribute fully to society and would eventually boost GDP and help to combat poverty. The problem is that the phantom statistics end up being a distraction, moving our attention away from the real issues. It is time to move away from the world of ghosts and zombies and back to reality. We should be haunted by the fact that women and men have still not achieved a greater degree of parity in the twenty first century and not by misleading statistics.

Apricot Wilson, LMDF


[1] men work an average of 5 hours a day in developing and 4 hours in developed countries while women work an average of 2 hours 40 minutes in developing countries and 2 hours 25 minutes in developed markets.

[2] in developed regions they spend an average of 4 hours 20 working, in developing countries they work 10 minutes more; men in developed countries spend 2 hours 20 minutes on unpaid work while men in developing countries spend 1 hour 20 minutes on these activities.