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The zombie statistic about women’s share of income and property


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

— graphic image promoted on Twitter and Facebook by Oxfam, citing the U.N. Development Program

The Fact Checker encourages readers to submit fact checks via Twitter using #FactCheckThis, and this widely circulated Oxfam tweet ended up in our mailbox. It certainly offers a striking set of statistics.

But as is often the case, the statistics are too good to be true. Oddly, these statistics have circulated for decades, persistently, despite the efforts of researchers to debunk them as ridiculously inaccurate. One reason is because the statistics have been promoted by supposedly reputable organizations, such as Oxfam and UNDP. But people also often want to believe facts that appear to confirm their own biases.

With International Women’s Day on the horizon, let’s try to unravel this once and for all.

The Facts

Amazingly enough, most of this factoid — the 66 percent of work, 10 percent of income and 1 percent of property — dates back to some very fuzzy research from the late 1970s. Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociology professor, in 2011 traced it to a journal published by the International Labor Organization in 1978. Without any sourcing, the journal made this assertion:

“A world profile on women, using selected economic and social indicators, reveals that women constitute one half of the world population and one third of the official labor force; perform nearly two-thirds of work hours; but according to some estimates receive only one-tenth of the world income and possess less than one-hundredth of world property.”

So you can see right away that, whatever the provenance of this figure, it is surely somewhat dated nearly four decades later, especially given the movement of women into the workforce in many industrialized countries.

In 2007, Krishna Ahooja-Patel, an Indian lawyer who had worked for the United Nations for 25 years, wrote a book, “Development Has A Woman’s Face: Insights from Within the U.N,” in which she revealed she was responsible for the statistic.

We’ve embedded a copy of the relevant text at the end of the column, but her explanation is maddeningly imprecise. She says she relied on “various UN statistics,” “available global data,” andfragmentary indicators at the time.” As Cohen put it, the statistics turned out to be “a guess based on an extrapolation wrapped round an estimate.” Yet Ahooja-Patel even suggested that women might own “much lower” than 1 percent of world assets.

Yet despite ample evidence that these are fishy figures, various organizations have willy-nilly cited them, often without attribution. And when attribution is provided, it usually leads back to a report by some U.N. agency, which then itself provided no attribution. It’s like a constant feedback loop.

“This is a zombie fact, and it never dies,” said Agnes Quisumbing, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Here’s how hard it is to kill the zombie.

In the case of Oxfam, officials pointed to a July 2011 “Fast Facts” publication by UNDP. Sure enough, in the right-hand corner, under “Matters of Fact,” is this statement, with no attribution: “Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, produce 50 percent of the food, but earn only 10 percent of the income and own only one percent of the property.”

But Boaz Paldi, UNDP spokesman, acknowledged that “the facts quoted are indeed wrong, and UNDP has not used these statistics since 2011. Furthermore UNDP does not support the use of these statistics.” He noted that the agency’s latest fact sheet, dated February 2014, “uses other facts to illustrate the scope of gender inequalities.”

But UNDP has not made clear the previous fact sheet was wrong, and so it is still floating around on the Internet. Apparently, unlike newspapers, U.N. agencies do not correct their errors.

Meanwhile, Laura Rusu, a spokeswoman for Oxfam America, said: “We believe that statistics are important to spark the public conversations that lead to action to address the challenges of poverty and injustice around the world. But we also recognize that such statistics only work if they are accurate, so we are no longer using these numbers.”

Yet again, this graphic continues to circulate on the Internet, as Oxfam has also not issued any sort of correction.

Oxfam released this graphic illustration last March. Ironically, at just about that time, Yale University economist Cheryl Doss wrote on an Oxfam blog that the claim about property was “actually unsubstantiated and advocates are doing a disservice to their own cause by using it.”

She cited a paper that she co-wrote with Quisumbing and other researchers, based on studies across Africa, that found that on average, across 10 countries in Africa, 39 percent of women and 48 of men reported owning land. This was often joint ownership, as “only 12 percent of women report owning land individually, while 31 percent of men do so.”

So men generally own more property than women. But women own far more than just 1 percent.

The claim that women have just 10 percent of worldwide income also is ridiculous. Women clearly earn less than men, but as Cohen noted, women in the United States by themselves are responsible for more than 5 percent of worldwide income. A study by ActionAid in Britain found the total value of the global employment participation gap and the wage gap between women and men is $17 trillion; that suggests women have about a 36 percent share of global income, measured in purchasing power parity terms. A UNICEF study in 2007 suggested women had a 23.5 percent share. That’s a wide enough gap to take a jaundiced view of many of these figures, but both are much higher than 10 percent.

Doss has also looked at the question of how much food women produce. (The Oxfam graphic said 50 percent, but activists have also claimed 60 and even 80 percent.) “Quite frankly, I don’t know what this statistic could mean and how we could actually assign a number to the amount of food produced by women,” Doss said.  “How do we figure out who produced the food when men and women both work on the same plots, producing some crops together?”

Yet, Doss noted, “when I presented the paper on how much of the world’s food do women produce at FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] — they were quite upset with me.  They kept saying that they needed this statistic!”

[Update: Ahooja-Patel initially did not respond to requests for comment. But on March 28, she wrote The Fact Checker: “Please understand that the knowledge of statistics we have now in 2015 is not the same as what we knew earlier, especially in the 1970s and 80s. Some of the statistics we were looking at in that period were estimates and the national statistical offices of the period did not cover women’s issues or data. The land question is extremely important and as you will understand the property laws have also changed meanwhile and so have the qualitative and quantitative measurement of land."]

The Pinocchio Test

It’s good that for the first time Oxfam and UNDP have acknowledged that they have peddled false information. But they need to take a proactive role in setting the record straight. Any papers or Web sites that had previously used these figures need to be prominently corrected. It’s not enough to simply kill a link. The message should be clear: This is a bogus, Four-Pinocchio statistic unworthy of citation.

Four Pinocchios

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Krishna Ahooja-Patel’s formula by GlennKesslerWP

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015