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Gender – related indicators of Well – Being

maggio 18, 2011

This paper analyses the issue of gender-related indicators of well-being construction.

Including gender inequality in the calculation of well-being is very important for two reasons:

  1. Gender differences are so large that they cannot and should not be ignored measuring well-being. The large inequality can be found especially in two important indicators, survival and education. For both these indicators there isn’t an even access to resources in the households. Furthermore, about survival, there are some 100 million women “missing” in the populations of developing countries. Likewise there are many differences in access to education in several regions of the world.
  2. Inequality as a biological difference is applied to gender, but also to race or ethnicity.    People are punished for an ascriptive characteristic they are born with. In the case of gender the inequalities are based only on one’s sex:
  • Some gender gaps are rooted in biological differences between males and females. The most important two are the ability of the women to bear children and the differences in average body size and strength.
  • A considerable part of gender inequality is generated in the household and thus outside the formal markets. In this case gender inequality is often less measurable and visible than the other ascriptive inequalities. Moreover, despite gender inequalities are unrelated to economic resources, they have a large impact on the well-being of women.

There are numerous problems to construct indicators of well–being that take into consideration gender gaps.

First of all we have to consider the space where gender inequality has to be measured. In particular there are some spaces that are quite unsuitable examining gender dimensions of well-being (E.g. the household). The gender inequalities should necessarily be seen as relevant for a well-being assessment to the extent that they might be based on a consensual division of labour in the household. An important step to reducing gender inequalities is to remove any legal and procedural imbalances but it is not sufficient. There are, actually, other factors (social, economic and cultural) that might still maintain these inequalities.  Analyses of well-being based on capabilities might be convenient if including gender dimension. In this space is important to focus on substantive “positive” freedoms that males and female should have. Besides, focusing on aspects of life which data are available it doesn’t consider the disaggregation problem of household-based measurement. Considering freedoms, males and females might, for reasons of biology or sociology, end up with different outcomes despite enjoying the same capabilities. This advantage is only theoretical.  This approach only measures well-being using functionality rather than capabilities, because it’s more difficult to observe people’s choice sets than their actual choices. So this approach, limiting the observation to functionality, reduces one of the key advantages.

Moreover, it is necessary to understand if the equality of outcomes is the goal. In some cases, biological differences might lead to erroneous conclusions about the presence of gender gaps in opportunities or treatment (E.g. the longevity). Is a matter of fact that the female life expectancy at birth exceeds male one, but this doesn’t mean that gender inequality is favouring females. This is pretty evident, but it’s difficult to assess the precise magnitude of this biological disadvantage (life expectancy) and separate it from gendered behavioural patterns. (E.g. males abuse of nicotine and alcohol, their workplace are more dangerous). Similar problems might emerge in the assessment of gender gaps in malnutrition. Males and females, in fact, have different body size and their growth to attain such body sizes follows different patterns. This can possibly explain only a small portion of gender gaps.

In other cases, some inequalities in outcomes might be result of informed choices by males and females and thus do not signify inequalities in opportunities or capabilities.

In one of his studies, Sen argues that strengthening female agency should be considered as a separate goal alongside improving female well-being.

A central role to the threat point of males and females is allocated by the bargaining approaches to intrahousehold resource allocation. It includes education and income, earning opportunities and better economic and legal support. Economic and legal empowerment will improve their well-being. Moreover, including women in the political representation, improves public policy favouring female well-being. The problem is that we don’t know if female empowerment is a well-being goal by itself as we still have to consider the following points:

  • The ability to achieve positions of economic and political power.
  • Distinction about agency and well-being
  • Sometimes women might equate their well-being with the well-being of their family and thus accept lower allocations for them.

How can we evaluate gender inequality in these outcomes?

According to capability approach, there isn’t a capability problem, as these women could have secured more resources for themselves. If we consider agency as an important aspect of well-being, the women’s goal of sacrificing themselves for the good of the family should positively influence their well-being. On the contrary it’s possible to say that people’s preferences will reduce well-being as measured by objective indicators.

There are limitations of the claim that women are consenting agents of their own discrimination. It may be due in some circumstances, but it’s unlikely that all women and girls consent to reduce allocation for them. In grass-roots opinion exist some factor, like lack of political, economic and legal power that are often more important to explain gender inequalities in health, education, nutrition and mortality rather than the willing consent of female to improve their well-being.

There are two approaches which can be used to handle the issue of gender related measures of well-being.

  1. Gender disaggregated measures. In case one has to disaggregate well-being measures by gender to see if males and females fare differently in different well-being outcomes. This produces direct information about well-being of both gender and avoids the difficult question of having to define what is meant by gender equality. It might be also useful for policy purposes. The disadvantage is that it is not always obvious how to interpret such indicator.
  2. Gender-sensitive aggregated measures. This approach tries to assess the impact of gender inequality on aggregate well-being. It’s based on the notion that societies exhibit inequality aversion. UNDP has created Gender-Related Development Index that is an example of this approach. The advantage is that it assesses the aggregate well-being costs of gender inequality and underline that gender inequality is not only hurting women but imposes an aggregate well-being loss on societies. On the contrary, the disadvantage is that it must include an implicit notion of equality upon which it can apply penalties for deviations from equality standard.

The two approaches are both important and there isn’t any reason to choose between one and the other.

There are other issues that are important to know when you have to formulate a gender – related indicator of well being.

  1. The problem of the household. The household plays a very important and not always well-understood role in generating and allocating of most of well-being relevant resources. It earn incomes, get other well-being resources and allocate them among primarily three types of goods:
  • Private goods which are used by only one person (E.g. food, clothing, health care…)
  • Public goods that have the classical public goods qualities (non-rival and non-excludable). It’s not possible to know how much these public goods are used by one person versus another.
  • In-between goods that are private goods consumed by one member which provides positive externalities on other households members.

Most of information about economic resources is avaible only at the level of household, so it’s difficult to assign household incomes or assets to individuals of different gender.

In 1995, UNDP has claimed that the 70% of the world’s poor are female. The most important categories which are gender-imbalanced are single households and lone parent households. In the first case we have widows or widowers, single men or women living alone. In the second case, lone parents constitute a significant share in many country but

they are not invariable poorer than two-parent household.

  1. The issue of measuring stock and flow variables[1]. Most of well-being measurements (per capita income, life expectancy and school enrolment) are based on flow variables. Flow measurement might be problematic because there might be substitutions between gender inequality in stocks and flows that would not receive due recognition when just examining flow measurements. (E.g. gender inequality in mortality inChina). One way to solve this problem is to have gender-related well-being that combine stock and flow measures. For example, in the HDI, education combines adult literacy (that is stock) with school enrolments (that is flow). So it’s very important use both kind of variables.
  1. The problem of the data. The data bases are often lacking or shaky because of different definitions or measures. There are different gaps:
  • Work in the home is not well measured and included in standard national income accounting;
  • We don’t know about the time spent in informal market;
  • Many information about well-being is not avaible at the household level;
  • A lot of gender-related data suffer from inconsistencies over time and across countries
  • Despite improvements, data remains a problem. In many countries they are estimated and not measured.

UNDP’s Gender-Sensitive Development Indicators

In 1995 UNDP[2], in his Human Development Report[3] focusing on gender, proposed two measures of tracking gender-related well-being across space and time.

  1. Gender-Related Development Index. It’s a well-being indicator that adjusts the Human Development Index downward by existing gender inequalities in longevity, education and incomes. It tries to incorporate the aggregate well-being costs associated with existing gender inequality in critical well-being outcomes. The difference between the two measures is the well-being loss linked with gender inequality in the three components of the HDI.
  2. Gender Empowerment Measure. The aim of this measure is to focus on the relative empowerment of males and females. Women’s empowerment play’s an important intrinsic and instrumental role in an assessment of well-being by gender.

While Gender Empowerment Measure has provided some cross-country comparisons on aspects of female empowerment, the Gender-Related Development Index is still a highly problematic and unreliable indicator of gender-sensitive development.

It’s very important consider the gender dimension in the indicator of well-being even if it’s very difficult. But now we know something else:

  • It might be preferable to consider functionality or capabilities space;
  • It is useful to use both gender disaggregated measures and gender-sensitive aggregated measures;
  • It’s better to consider both stock and flow variables;
  • The dimensions of gender inequality that have important well-being consequences are many and we don’t know much yet about these.
Chiara Bevilacqua


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