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 In Articles, Current Events, Data Resources for Nonprofits, Experts, How To

I work with a lot of groups that strive for gender equality around the world. When I saw this New York Times piece about The Myth of Women’s ‘Empowerment’, I was intrigued. So much of my work has focused on helping measure women’s empowerment — how could it be a myth? I read it eagerly.

The article has drawn ire — as well as praise — from many in the social sector. Whether or not you agree with the conclusion, the piece raises a valid point. How we define and measure women’s empowerment makes a real difference in how we collect data, how we analyze data, and what we deem a success.

“Today, the term “empowerment” has become diluted to the point of complete ambiguity. It appears in the mission statements of everyone from Save the Children to the Islamic State and is used to refer to everything from access to technology to gender equivalence in parliamentary representation.”

Emissaries of Empowerment

The author of the NYT piece (and the report it was based on) argues that to effectively measure women’s empowerment, we must look at political freedom and mobilization, not just short-term economic improvements. But different ideas of what it means to be “empowered” make defining and measuring women’s empowerment a challenge. In fact, different approaches can either strengthen or undermine efforts to promote equality.

How can we measure women’s empowerment if we haven’t agreed what it looks like?

“In reality, a job or access to financial services may not be a sign of empowerment; women may be stuck in low-quality jobs or forced to work.”

Jenny Aker of Tufts University and Leora Klapper of the World Bank

So What is Women’s Empowerment?

Many development projects include supporting gender equality in their goals. This focus is also expressed in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. On the list of 17 goals, the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls ranks right up there at number five.

So what does the UN think constitutes equality and empowerment for women?

“Providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large.”

SDG No. 5

But how do we measure that?

In my experience, any effort to measure women’s empowerment requires a very nuanced understanding of the values of the communities in question. What power looks like to a woman in one cultural and social position will not necessarily match (or even closely resemble) the ideals of a woman in different circumstances.

Measuring women’s empowerment can, more often than not, be broken down into five broad dimensions:


  • Having control over income and family resources
  • Ownership of assets
  • Opportunity for employment
  • Access to markets
  • Representation in economic decision-making roles

Empowerment can look very different to different people.

Social and Cultural

  • Absence of discrimination against women and girls
  • Control over their own bodies and access to family planning services
  • Freedom from sexual and domestic violence
  • Visibility in social spaces
  • Shifts away from cultural norms that place women subservient to men


  • Expansion of legal knowledge and awareness of legal rights
  • Opportunity to mobilize for increased women’s rights
  • Ability to use the judicial system to create reform


  • The right to vote
  • Knowledge of and involvement in the political system
  • Representation in government at various levels
  • The ability to support policies and causes that affect women


  • Feelings of self-worth and happiness
  • Public acceptance of women’s rights
  • Inclusion of women in society

Obviously, none of these will be true — or useful — across all cases. Indeed, that is where the challenge lies in measuring women’s empowerment. It simply doesn’t scale well. What empowerment — or equality — looks like can vary from country to country. It can also differ between communities and even between individual women. So it’s impossible to create a system of standardized, normalized, universal indicators we can use to consistently measure women’s empowerment across countries and over time.

Start to Measure Women’s Empowerment

There is no one indicator to measure how far women have come — or how far they have yet to go — to achieve gender equality. So understanding the different facets of power within cultural and social positions is crucial. Only then can we build practices, policies, and systems to enhance equality and trigger a shift in cultural norms to promote women’s rights.

So what do we do in the meantime?

There is no perfect tool to measure women’s empowerment — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Here are a few resources that might help you measure gender equality.

If you have more specific questions — or want some hands-on help — the team at Datassist is always here for you. Get in touch with us to discuss what we can do for you.

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