'Women Own 1% of World Property': A Feminist Myth That Won't Die

A viral, decades-old statistic is based on sketchy research.

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Not demonstrably true!

If you're a feminist you've probably seen this. You may have even repeated it: verbally, on your blog, on a flyer, on Twitter, in your book or an academic article. It goes something like this:

While women represent half the global population and one-third of the labor force, they receive only one-tenth of the world income and own less than one percent of world property. They are also responsible for two-thirds of all working hours.

That's how it appeared in 1984, on page one, in Robin Morgan's introduction to the classic collection called Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women's Movement Anthology. That's more or less how it was tweeted by untold numbers of people a quarter-century later, on #IWD 2011 (a.k.a. International Women's Day). And that's how it was graphically presented in a slick Google video promoting IWD events that year.

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But that wasn't where it started, of course.

Where did it come from?

I don't know what it is, but some concepts come to mind: meme, virus, legend. I'll just call it it.

Usually, it is repeated without real attribution. But there are three bonafide sources offered by real scholars.

  1. A report called "World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace," from 1980 (U.N. buffs might call it A/Conf. 94/20); or to the "Programme of Action" that emerged from Copenhagen. That Copenhagen document was released under the name of Kurt Waldheim, who (before his Nazi past was revealed) was Secretary General to the United Nations at the start of the U.N.'s 1975-1985 Decade for Women. This is not the true source.
  2. The footnote from Morgan herself says: "Statistics from Development Issue Paper No. 12, UNDP." Produced under Decade-for-Women impetus, this was titled "Women and the New International Economic Order" (I've placed a copy here). Unfortunately, this is just a restatement, without substantiation. It is not the true source.
  3. The Copenhagen report contains a footnote to a 1978 edition of a Decade-for-Women-inspired journal published by the International Labour Organization, called Women at Work (1978/1). This, I now believe, is the true source.

The Women at Work reference, the oldest of the three, occurs in an editor's introduction. Unfortunately, the sum total of what it provides is this:

A world profile on women, using selected economic and social indicators, reveals that women constitute one half of the world population and one third of the official labour force; perform nearly two-thirds of work hours; but according to some estimates receive only one-tenth of the world income and possess less than one-hundredth of world property.

There is no information on the indicators used or their sources, or what is meant by "some estimates." That is where the trail goes cold—the oldest source, completely unsourced.

However, in 2007 Krishna Ahooja-Patel, the editor over whom's initials that editorial appeared, published a book called Development Has A Woman's Face: Insights from Within the U.N.. In that book she attributes the formula to herself, and offers an unsourced sketch of the methods used, "based on some available global data and others derived by use of fragmentary indicators at the time, in the late 1970s."

The figures used for the formula were: women were 33 percent of the world's formal workforce, and they were "only on the low income level in the pyramid of employment," where—even in those lowly jobs, based on data from "several countries"—they earned 10 percent to 30 percent less than men. Therefore, "one could assume that women's income is only one-third of the average income of men." Since they were one-third of the workforce, and earned one-third as much as men, their total income was .33 * .33, or 11 percent. (She rounded it down to 10 percent.) In short, a guess based on an extrapolation wrapped round an estimate.

Presented by

Philip Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland in College Park.

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