Hats off to UNICEF for acting promptly to revise its recent paper on inequality after a discussion with Oxfam (and probably others) about the misleading statements on gender in its first version, but I still don’t think they’ve got it right, so with heavy heart, here comes a rebuttal………
The problems began when UNICEF stated in the original version of an otherwise excellent report on inequality (a critical issue that is too often ignored):
‘Unlike youth, income disparities do not appear to have a disproportionate, negative impact on women…… female populations, on the aggregate, face the same levels of income inequality as the population at large.’
But as the methodology annex makes clear, none of the techniques used in the paper make any attempt to lift the lid on what is going on within households. So the lack of difference between men and women is purely an artifice of the methodology, not a reflection of (an unknown) reality. We (and UNICEF) cannot tell whether they are wrong or right, because the data provides no means of doing so.
One thing that bothers me though. As far as I can work out, the only factor that would register a significant difference in terms of gender would be a large number of women-headed households that are much poorer than the rest. The fact that this does not register suggests either that women-headed households are not on average poorer than others (which I doubt) or that they are not sufficiently numerous to make a major impact on the stats (more likely). But based on my knowledge of Latin America I would have expected both to be true, and so to see a gender difference even using this methodology – anyone got any ideas why that hasn’t happened?
Anyway, the new version of the report, posted last week, backpedals somewhat, but gets itself into a bit of a tangle: It still says ‘Unlike children and youth, using the same data and methodology, the distribution of income at the global level does not appear to have a disproportionate, negative impact on women’, but then, a couple of paras lower down, concedes ‘based on the available aggregate income data at the global level, it is not possible to identify the dispersion of income among household members.’
But surely, if the data you are using doesn’t distinguish between women and men within households, the finding is pretty meaningless, and the statement on gender inequality is misleading, right?
It’s a shame to have to pick up on this, both because UNICEF is fully aware that the absence of gender disaggregated data is indeed a problem (see here for an example), and because the report is otherwise strong and well worth reading. This from the executive summary:
‘Using market exchange rates, the richest population quintile gets 83 percent of global income with just a single percentage point for those in the poorest quintile. While there is evidence of progress, it is too slow; we estimate that it would take more than 800 years for the bottom billion to achieve ten percent of global income under the current rate of change. Also disturbing is the prevalence of children and youth among the poorest income quintiles, as approximately 50 percent are below the $2/day international poverty line.’
But the gender section is unfortunate and potentially damaging. As the main ‘man bites dog’ surprise in the report, it has already attracted coverage, for example in this post on Global Dashboard by the ODI’s Claire Melamed. Claire’s post shows how a misleading bit of analysis can snowball, as she summarized UNICEF as saying ‘Inequality is not a gender problem’. I’m sure Claire would be the first to agree that when it comes to economics, gender inequality most clearly is a problem, and a big one at that – in assets, in finance, in access to training/extension. It’s also worth noting that income is a pretty hopeless way to try and understand what happens behind the front door of households – better to look at control of assets, consumption, or ‘time poverty’.
Until someone takes responsibility for addressing the data gap, these kinds of confusions are only likely to continue. For starters, has anyone ever pulled together all the available studies on intra-household inequality in income, consumption and time use and found a plausible way to scale up to some general conclusions, however tentative? If not, who’s the best candidate to do so – a non-gender specialist outfit like the World Bank or keep it in the ghetto with UN Women, given that their latest report is so brilliant?
Apologies for any discomfiture to colleagues at UNICEF, which does great work on this and many other issues, and they do of course have right of reply. [h/t Amanda Lundy]
Update: See comments for a response from the authors