A little geographic and demographic awareness might squelch the 1% meme

How the 1% meme works, and how it could be stopped.

Here is a typical recent application of the 1% meme -the 30-year rumor that women own only 1% of the world’s property.

In a blog post on Ms., Jessica Mack describes the problem of women’s landownership in China. Land ownership is a big problem there, following the breakup of the collective ownership system, with massive land-grabbing and the migration of tens of millions of people to the cities. She writes:

In China, women have equal rights to inherit and own land, yet rarely do. A recent survey in 17 Chinese provinces, undertaken by the global land rights group Landesa, found that only 17.1 percent of existing land contracts and 38.2 percent of existing land certificates include women’s names. [with her original links]

It’s a serious problem, no doubt. But what does it mean that “17.1 percent of existing land contracts and 38.2 percent of existing land certificates include women’s names”? Does it mean women “own” that land? Are they part-owners? That’s a question she should have considered before writing, later in the post: “Yet women globally own only one to two percent of all titled land.” If “land contracts” or “land certificates” represent ownership, and the “less than two percent” statistic is true, than Chinese women are doing great.

That “less than two percent” fact is sourced to a blog post from World Food Program USA, which says that women “own less than 2 percent of the world’s titled land.” That fact is sourced to an op-ed piece in the Seattle Times, by Tim Hanstad, which simply repeats the classic meme without attribution. Sigh.

Anyway, the good news is that the seeds of the meme’s undoing are in Jessica Mack’s own post. It just takes a sense of the size of the world, and China within it, to get started. If women “own” either 17% or 38% of land in China, could they really own just 1% of land in the world?

Here’s a Peters Projection map of the world, which is “area accurate,” showing the size of China.

On an eyeball basis, would about a quarter of China be more than 1% of the world?

In fact, we know from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that China is 7% of the world’s land area. In terms of agricultural land, however, which is what many people are talking about when they repeat the meme, China accounts for 10.7% of land (523 million out of 4.9 billion hectares).

If women in China have their names on 17.1% of land contracts, and 38.2% of land certificates, that represents 1.8% and 4.1% of all the world’s agricultural land respectively. If either of those figures represents “ownership,” or even half-ownership (as with spouses), then the meme is once again disproved on the basis of one country alone.

This little exercise also shows that the 1% “statistic” is a fool’s errand in the first place, because with so much of the world’s land its ownership cannot be attributed to one person, and therefore its owner doesn’t have a gender.

To review:

2 thoughts on “A little geographic and demographic awareness might squelch the 1% meme

  1. Philip, I would say that main reason that this 1% fallacy has not been more effectively debunked is that it comes from a kernel of the truth. Certainly, if we could somehow measure total wealth owned by either women or men, we would find that women own more than 1% (and as a corollary, men own less than 99%). Anyone who thinks about this for more than 10 seconds must realize that this is true. However, the underlying fact that women control fewer resources than men and that this has real implications for social, health, and lifestyle outcomes of women is still true. The 1% meme can be thought of as exaggerated rhetoric for the message that gender inequality exists and is widespread. I applaud you for trying to debunk it, but remember that the spirit behind it is true.


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