Sometimes we must allow an endeavor to be new. Women’s economic empowerment, as a global strategy for grappling with poverty and other world problems, is something no one has envisioned before in history. The institutions who are undertaking this massive challenge are an unusual assortment of partners: they include governments and NGOs, but also corporations. The programs these organizations implement frequently break out of what is normally thought their institutional “turf”: such as corporations encouraging girls’ education or governments giving entrepreneurship training. The modes of thinking, too, are a mix previously unimagined: using business to fight gender inequality is, for many in the academy, the most heretical thought. That’s because, in the past, women’s studies (and feminism generally) has been extremely unfriendly to commerce—and business schools have been extremely unfriendly to women. Traditional economics has hardly given gender a thought: you can read any one of many histories of economics, even the economics of everyday life, and never see a single mention of females.
The data that inspired those of us who work in this area are also relatively new. The correlations of gender data presented and analyzed by the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, UNDP, UNICEF, Booz & Company, and the Economist Intelligence Unit are a phenomenon of the past ten years. While many of us have been inspired, even galvanized, by these reports, there is still a long way to go before anyone really understands the causalities and mechanisms that link gender equality so consistently with peace and prosperity.
Even the definition of “women’s empowerment,” not to mention “women’s economic empowerment,” is still very much a moving target.
The Advisory Note on Measures released today by a team of researchers in Oxford is an attempt to show where the next stage of thought needs to happen. We reviewed more than 700 references looking for measures to apply to Walmart’s Empowering Women Together. As a real-life program that actually worked in the marketplace (and not just in a controlled trial somewhere), EWT presented challenges that existing measurement concepts and study designs had not anticipated. When we worked through the reports of practice and study, we also saw that there were substantial gaps in thinking and worrisome logical contradictions in the approaches being taken by those who were structuring assessments. We concluded that this field needs to spend some more time on its conceptual thinking.
The Executive Summary of the Advisory Note sketches the problems we saw. Then there is a section of about forty pages explaining the background, analyzing existing systematic reviews, and explaining further our findings. The list of references is given as an appendix, as are two smaller literature reviews.
We found that definitions of empowerment rely too heavily on concepts that are not actually observable. The behavioral proxies being used instead are often problematic and the questions used to operationalize often apply only to a handful of developing countries. The over-reliance on business indicators as the sole measure of success, unbalanced by measures of human impact, is a major concern. Not only does this practice potentially lead to exploitation, it also sets programs up to be judged failures because the reference points are gender-biased. There is a pressing need to develop indicators that can be used in both developed and developing countries and across all types of empowerment programs. The phenomenon of “empowerment” itself is understood only very superficially and insufficient notice is taken of the way local resistance is likely to frustrate program efforts.
The Advisory Note is the last in a series of outputs coming out of the Walmart Empowering Women Together research project. There are also three case studies and one teaching case, all of which help to illustrate the reasons we questioned the advisability of certain current practices and measures.