Stop that feminist viral statistic meme

That thing you might have heard, about women’s work, income and property ownership — it’s not true. (And yes, I really am a feminist.)

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 this year.

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.

Krishna Ahooja-Patel

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% 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% to 30% 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%. (She rounded it down to 10%.) In short, a guess based on an extrapolation wrapped round an estimate.

What about the dramatic conclusion, that women “possess less than one-hundredth of world property”? She offers only this explanation: “if the average wage of women is so low, it can be assumed that they do not normally have any surplus to invest in reproducible or non-reproducible assets.” Hence, less than 1%. That’s it. In fact, she adds, “In reality the figure may be much lower.”

Source? “Various UN Statistics.”

Who knows?

These things are hard to measure, hard to know, and hard to explain. Setting aside the problem that the data didn’t (and still don’t, completely) exist to fill in the numbers in this famous sequence of facts — the first and perhaps greatest problem is that we can’t easily define the concepts, which is part of the feminist problem. Even in 1970, how could women own only 1% of property, when most women were married and in many countries had at least some legal claim to their families’ property? Similarly, what claim did women who worked in homes and fields have to their husbands’ cash incomes? And what about socialist countries (which were a big deal back then), where a lot of payment was in the form of in-kind transfers, and where various forms of collective ownership were pervasive?

Underneath it all, the universal problem of accounting for unpaid, and underpaid, work. (This was one of the core insights that inspired the Decade for Women, and fueled its most progressive elements.) And so on.

So it’s too simple to say the famous facts are wrong. The burden of proof is not on us (me) to show they are wrong, but rather to point out that they were never demonstrably true, so we shouldn’t use them. (I’m not sure the truth will set you free, but I’m pretty sure this won’t, either.)

As an exercise, though, consider one of the facts. With a combination of arithmetic and basic knowledge of a few demographic orders of magnitude, it’s straightforward to conclude that, whether or not women only received 10% of the world’s income in the 1970s, they receive more than that now.

Here: In the U.S. in 2009, the 106 million women who had incomes averaged $29,700 each. I think that’s $3.2 trillion. The whole world’s gross domestic product — a rough measure of total income — is $58.1 trillion. So, it looks to me like U.S. women alone earn 5.4% of world income today. Ballpark, but you see the point.

One of the potential negative consequences of this is also one of its attractions: The claim that, for all women do, they own virtually nothing, is a call to global unity for women. But it is undermined by the fact that a large number of women are — lets face it — rich. So if global feminist unity is to be had, it won’t be built on a shared poverty experience.


Why is this thing, which never had many legs to stand on, so pervasive even today, 33 years after it was devised? It has been used by legislators in South Africa, international universities, feminist NGOs, journalists, humanitarians, activists, sociologists, economists — and, amazingly, UN organizations such as UNIFEM and UNDP, speaking today in the present tense.

There is a great, much longer story here, that I hope I have forestalled investigating by getting this much off my chest. It has to do with access to information; and deference to, and cynicism about, statistical authorities — in the context of statistical and demographic (sorry to say) illiteracy; the relationship between feminism and science; and even the role of Twitter in social movements.

And debunking it won’t hurt feminism.

31 thoughts on “Stop that feminist viral statistic meme

  1. Excellent information. Thank you. I also have trying to find out the source of that figure. You have save me a lot of time.


  2. Nice article, I tweeted it which then started a mini discussion. Thought you might be interested, search #feministmeme on Twitter.

    I think I’ll follow-up with a blog post of my own. It seems like “facts” are often disconnected with the methodologies that create them, the web only seems to amplify the issue. There are so many infographics that suffer from the same type of disconnect.


    1. Thanks, Chris. I like your post (

      It impressed me reading about this how information was so much harder to come by in 1980. There was less data collection, and the results were harder to find. One of the things that was exciting about the UN Decade for Women was that feminists gained access to statistics and information to help their work — lots of great research came out of that time, and was widely disseminated.


  3. “The burden of proof is not on us (me) to show they are wrong, but rather to point out that they were never demonstrably true, so we shouldn’t use them”. Herein lays the problem. This is like one of those articles about Wall Street excess, defense contracting monopolies, and the abuse of money in politics that are filled with criticisms but fail to offer any solutions other than “people need to stop”. What you’re basically saying is that the poorly articulated math by a single woman claiming credit for a universally spoken quote disqualifies everyone else on the planet from repeating it because “you” and a few others were unable to locate any scientific proof that validates the claim. I’m sorry but in order to claim something is false you have to be able to prove it but showing the truth. This article alleges a falsehood of facts but shows no evidence to the contrary, other than that business about “So, it looks to me like U.S. women alone earn 5.4% of world income today” a statement that could be described in your own words as “a guess based on an extrapolation wrapped round an estimate”. My main problem is that this article rejects having any responsibility to demonstrate the truth and then criticizes others for doing the same. The reason why “the instant-publishing blogosphere” hasn’t produced any results is because this article has no revelations to repeat. It would be one thing if you posted the “true” statistics on world property, world income, the labor force, or global population as it pertains to women, but instead you took the lazy way out by saying “These things are hard to measure, hard to know, and hard to explain”. The blogosphere is similar to a courtroom; it feeds on gossip but at the end of the day in order to reverse any commonly accepted “meme” it has to be proven wrong beyond the shadow of a doubt. In other words the burden of proof is on you and unless than duty is fulfilled the conventional wisdom will not change. (Nor should it)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. you don’t know much about the law I guess. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt” is not a legal standard in any type of case. beyond a reasonable doubt is not near as great and it is only used in criminal convictions. He is not convicting her of a crime or anything so serious. He is only saying that there is little reason to believe this statistic. In most civil cases you only need a preponderance of the evidence (more than 50%), I would say he has cast enough doubt on this to satisfy such a burden. It really does not make sense to say he has to utterly refute the stat or come up with the real stats on his own to be taken seriously. If I told everyone there were leprechauns in the world does that mean I am right until you prove me wrong beyond a shadow of a doubt?


  4. In the ‘information age’ will this sort of viral propagation increase? Or was obtaining solid cross-sectional data (and critical viewpoints) harder to do before the internet hit the scene? In other words, should we expect scholars to have an easier time debunking – and publishing the results of said debunking – in the post-internet era? Or are the scholarly voices going to be drowned out by the deluge of incidents of copy-and-paste that is also much easier now?


  5. I was one of those who tracked it back to the 1980 UN report. There is an article published in Feminist Review which claims this as the original source, and also states that someone working at the UN was known to have completely fabricated the numbers, but the paper had no supporting details.

    I was kicked out of the facebook feminist group for challenging these numbers when posted by someone, even after I provided the link to the Feminist Review paper I was labelled a “troll” and angrily attacked. When I started a new thread stating that the group was declaring Feminism ineffective and pointless because these fictional numbers had not changed in thirty years, and being fictional they never would change, I was kicked out.


    1. Thanks, Tribaly. I didn’t know people got kicked out of feminist FB groups… It also hadn’t occurred to me that if the 1% thing were still true after all these years it would be tremendously bad news for the feminist movement. That’s really important.

      I don’t know that Feminist Review article you mentioned — do you have the detailed reference? I’d love to see it.


  6. I was looking at Forbes the 20 richest people on the planet ok: there are 18 men and 2 women in the top 20…Men: 584.7 Billions, Women: 49.3Billions.
    So, yes, according to this statistic, men just have over 10 times as much money, not 100. Yes, 10% would be a better rule.


    1. I’m sorry, out of a world with over 7billion people you are going to create an assumption based on a data set of 20 people and think that it is statistically relevant? Ok I will see your ignorance and raise you one: in my house my father was a stay at home spouse while my mother worked to support our family, by this fact I will now claim that women represent, oh I don’t know… About 100% of the global workforce and receive… If my math is correct, approx 100% of the worlds income. How does this even get on the Internet?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I guess you chose to over look the fact the study was for the DEVELOPING WORLD. But nice try, women can’t hate themselves. Keep trying.


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s