Making Women Count: The Challenge of Measuring Gendered Impact in Market Systems Facilitation

October 13, 2015

Donors are increasingly looking to integrate women’s economic empowerment (WEE) principles into market systems facilitation to achieve gender-transformative impact at scale. Driving this is a recognition of the disproportionate poverty burden borne by women and the potential multiplier effect of economically empowering them. By reinvesting their income in families and communities, economically empowered women are known to catalyze broader development outcomes.

Integrating WEE into market systems approaches is never a simple task. In addition to economic factors, the rigidity of socially ascribed gender roles and women's limited access to power, education, training, and productive resources means that women are often difficult to reach. This is particularly true when using facilitative approaches, which do not engage women directly; rather, these approaches seek to facilitate gender-responsive systemic change by incentivizing actors to adopt inclusive business practices. 

Because currently there is no standard means for measuring the impact of facilitative and other approaches to empowering women, programs struggle to demonstrate credible results to this end. Lacking this evidence, there is no way to improve the impact they are having on poor women. 

Unpacking the “Black Box” of Family and Enterprise Units

Imagine that, as part of a market systems program, an out-grower scheme has been facilitated to link commercial farms and smallholders. Under this agreement, smallholders commit to selling the entirety of their excess production. In return, a commercial farm provides a guaranteed market for sale, access to the agricultural services, and inputs and know-how required to boost production and quality – leading to increased smallholder income.

A woman who cultivates her own land and sells the produce herself benefits, but: 

  • What can we say for a husband and wife team? Do both count as beneficiaries? 
  • Does the distribution of profit depend on the division of labor? Or on the type of contribution? 
  • Or does it automatically accrued by the husband regardless of the wife’s contribution, in accordance with traditional norms?
  • Does it matter who receives the revenue? Or how the money is distributed and used?

Understanding the gendered impact of market systems programs is challenging because family units (commonly referred to as “households”) and enterprise units (commonly referred to as “households as enterprises”) often merge within poor communities in developing countries. This means it is common for multiple individuals – often of different genders – to contribute to the commercially productive activity.  

Some or all of these individuals may benefit from interventions, though the ways in which they benefit can vary: from improved access to inputs, land, or credit; to increased incomes; to empowerment. They may experience no benefit at all, or the intervention may even do harm.

Who to Report?

What’s more, in market system facilitation, there is no agreed approach to reporting. The most common practice is to report only the head of the family unit or enterprise unit, which is often the same individual. Problematically, this masks others’ contribution to the productive activity, including women, men, children, and laborers. This method almost always determines a male as the beneficiary due to entrenched gender power dynamics. 

This approach is both limiting and distortive when trying to understand gendered outcomes because impacts on female members of male-headed family units are not captured in the program’s monitoring and evaluation. Women would be counted as the beneficiary only where they are divorced, widowed, or because of male migration. And although impacts are much easier to attribute in female-headed households, a true understanding requires more acute exploration of mixed-sex, male-headed family and enterprise units to disentangle who benefits from (or is harmed by) the market system intervention, and how

Other programs count all those in the family or enterprise unit, including paid or unpaid laborers. This approach assumes – often incorrectly – that any increase in unit income has positive and equal benefits for all those contained within it. Furthermore, without robust accompanying qualitative analysis, this approach also simplifies the real gendered impact of market system facilitation.

Practical Approaches to Measurement

Valuable contributions to support practitioners to capture WEE more effectively include The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index and UN Foundation & ExxonMobil’s Measurement Companion to their Roadmap for Women’s Economic Empowerment. But while excellent resources, the preliminary challenge of determining who to count  – and the gender implications of this – remain.

While alternative approaches do exist (i.e., gendering time contribution to productive activities, intra-household disaggregated income and expenditure surveys), these are restrictively expensive, burdensome to deliver at scale, and often do not address other gendered data collection issues, such as concerns around the gender objectivity of survey respondents. 

A two-pronged methodology is needed that captures:

  • The multi-level nature of benefit (access; income; empowerment; and other multi-dimensional poverty factors), 
  • The complexity of mixed-sex household dynamics, while remaining practical to implement. 

The inconsistency and fallibility of existing approaches to measuring gendered impact highlight a need to revisit how we formulate gender-disaggregated indicators in market system programs. Do market system programs need to advance beyond increased incomes as their key beneficiary-focused impact indicator? And what can we learn from WEE-specific programming?

Celebrating 30 years, the SEEP Network’s 2015 Annual Conference created a dynamic track on Women's Economic Empowerment designed to promote frank discussions on our key assumptions in how to best connect women’s economic empowerment to social and political empowerment while helping to increase the adaptive capacity of women to sustain economic gains for themselves and their families.