Philip Cohen Reponds to International Women's Day Discourse
For more than 30 years, people concerned about the global inequality between men and women have been circulating the claim that women receive only one-tenth of world income and own only 1 percent of the world's property. This claim was repeated on CNN and other outlets for International Women's Day.
There is a great deal of gender inequality in the world, and much of the burden of global economic inequality in particular is borne by the women of the poorest countries. However, these facts are simply not true, and it we would all benefit from a better-informed discussion of gender inequality.
The original claim is from a 1978 United Nations publication, but even then it was only loosely based on the very limited global economic data available to the report's editor, Krishna Ahooja-Patel. It was a simple educated guess intended to dramatize the extent of global gender inequality.
In recent months I have tracked down the original quote, and searched for any attempts to validate the facts with more recent or more comprehensive data. The search was fruitless. In fact, this is a statistical meme - an idea passed from person to person, or website to website, without substantiation. To test the most extreme claim - that the world's women own just 1% of its property - I used published research and government statistics to assess how much of the world's personal wealth is held by one very small group of women about whom data are available: unmarried women in the United States. In fact, it is clear that this small group alone owns more than 1% of all world wealth.
Facts about global gender inequality are difficult to establish, because income and property ownership are poorly measured in many places, and much wealth is held by corporate entities or families rather than individuals. Nevertheless, we do know that women are disproportionately poor and dispossessed, that they are underrepresented in corporate and government decision-making bodies, and that they bear the brunt of sexual violence and exploitation. By drawing attention to the real facts of gender inequality, we can improve our ability to address these problems.