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The terminology describing economic programs for women has changed—actions to “empower women economically” have replaced efforts to “increase women’s economic participation and income.” This shift in language makes sense intuitively and has solid conceptual backing (in the work of Amartya Sen, for example) but, is there a difference between economic advancement and empowerment? And have measures changed in tandem with this change in terminology?

The short answer to the first question is yes—to the second, no.

Economic empowerment can occur without economic advancement; the reverse is also true. The introduction of subsidized childcare in the workplace, for instance, may not increase wages of (already employed) female workers but may substantially reduce their stress levels, since they now have a reliable option for childcare. This improves their subjective wellbeing and empowerment, which only a theory of change and measures that acknowledge the subjective dimension of empowerment will address (Woodruff 2015). Evaluations of programs for women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh (Roy et al. 2015) and women entrepreneurs working in the Walmart supply chain (Scott 2016) document the opposite effect. In both cases, men take control over businesswomen’s increased revenues. Without a measure that captured who controlled the growing income resulting from the intervention, the conclusion would have been that women advanced economically, while in reality they did not.

The change in terminology is, therefore, consequential, and interventions should strive to measure both economic empowerment and economic advancement. But while measuring women’s economic advancement itself is not a trivial task, gauging economic empowerment poses further challenges.

This is partly because the empowerment process is mostly unobservable and depends on self-reporting; it is also messy, covering many different domains. The conceptual literature is rich in normative views (Wonder Woman comes to mind when reading some of the literature!) that do not translate easily into empirical measures. This difficulty has added to the disconnect that exists between theory and measurement—with measures lagging significantly behind theory.

Measuring women’s economic empowerment: context matters

Last November, at the Second Annual Birdsall House Conference on Women, CGD, Data2X, and IDRC discussed short essays commissioned by Data2X on how to measure women’s economic empowerment. They can now be found at the Women’s Economic Empowerment: A Roadmap website and the Data2x website. The World Bank Africa Gender Innovation Lab produced an excellent piece organizing and translating empowerment concepts into empirical measures and also participated in the session.  A consistent message from the discussion and the essays is that culture and context matter, and that especially “measures of the mind” need to be validated and adapted before they are used. Measures need to be culturally appropriate and context specific, and should correspond or be mapped to the particular research question.

Different features of subjective empowerment, such as ability to decide on family planning, autonomy over how to use individual savings, or freedom to vote mediate different empowerment outcomes, and research should measure the appropriate feature. These features will vary across the different domains—i.e., social, economic, and political, as the examples above indicate—and there is no reason to assume that empowerment in one domain will necessarily carry over to others. Researchers need to be much more discriminating in their choice of empowerment indicators, and not assume that, for instance, decision-making over household expenditures (one of the most commonly used measures) is always the valid indicator to use, regardless of the context and the domain.

Even within a specific domain, such as economic empowerment, features may vary with the type or sub-set of economic activity: while financial autonomy may be the critical feature to measure for women entrepreneurs and for young women, stress may be the right measure for women wage and salary workers. Measures should also be able to capture the empowerment effects of “smart” designs—for instance, interventions that encourage privacy (such as using mobile phones for financial transactions), should be tracked using indicators of autonomy and self-reliance over financial decisions.

The road ahead: different measures for different women

The task ahead is to identify suitable attitudinal and behavioral measures of economic empowerment, perhaps differentiating by sub-sets of economic activity (farming, entrepreneurship, wage, and salary work) and by age. Adolescent girls and young women may need different measures or measures calibrated differently. Building a standardized, cross-culturally comparable measure of economic empowerment, while a worthy objective, can begin only after suitable measures for sub-categories of activities and both young and adult women have been identified and tested in different contexts. Another task is to construct and test empowerment measures for collectives or communities. These tasks are challenging but necessary, especially if the final objective is to promote and, therefore, track and measure women’s economic empowerment as well as advancement.