Gender in Agriculture Partnership

Transforming agriculture to empower women and deliver food, nutrition and income security

Where is the standardized measure of women’s empowerment?

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Measurements of empowerment—particularly women’s empowerment—are having a moment in the spotlight. Following the release of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab’s Practical Guide to Measuring Women’s and Girl’s Empowerment in Impact Evaluations, even National Public Radio is discussing the limitations and challenges inherent in capturing this slippery, complex concept. Why does this issue seem to resonate so much with the development community? If we believe “what gets measured, gets done” and that empowering marginalized populations is intrinsically and instrumentally important—then it is imperative that we get measures right. This means unpacking the complexities in a way they can be used even by those who do not consider themselves gender experts.

Empowerment is a challenge to measure, in part because of the seemingly infinite metrics used. Conceptually, most researchers and implementers agree that ultimately what we want to measure is something close to the concept of agency, defined by economist Amartya Sen in “Development as Freedom” as “people’s ability to use those capabilities and opportunities to expand the choices they have and to control their own destiny.”

However, measuring the expansion of agency, autonomy or power—over, to, and with—is not easy. Most research defaults to measuring either the enabling conditions—for example, access to information or resources—or the end result—for instance, social, or economic well-being outcomes. The field of economics has primarily focused on standardized intra-household decision-making indicators to measure bargaining power—a proxy for agency within the household that the J-PAL guide suggests is not cut out for the job.

The critiques of decision-making indicators are not new. And there are many. For example, we might worry they are not specific enough in the face of cultural differences, do not reveal true preferences of the individual when couples disagree, or are prone to social desirability bias. It is also unclear how we should construct indicators: are women—or men—more or less “empowered” if they make decisions alone? Or is joint decision-making preferred as a signal of a more equitable, inclusive, and communicative relationship?

In a new paper, we explore several measurement concepts around standard decision-making indicators using case studies from two distinct locales: Bangladesh and Ghana. In particular, we utilize a measure of relative autonomy—a construction used primarily in psychology that measures the extent to which actions are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated—to calibrate decision-making. We are interested in knowing whether men and women who report sole decision-making in a particular domain, experience stronger or weaker feelings of autonomous motivation, compared to those who report joint decision-making.

Read on HERE for the takeaways from the paper.

Amber Peterman is an Associate Research Professor at the University of North Carolina and a social policy consultant at the UNICEF Office of Research–Innocenti. Greg Seymour is an Associate Research Fellow with IFPRI's Environment and Production Technology Division. This post first appeared on

Photo credit: Axel Fassio/CIFOR