Even when quantitative data are valid, they often produce very limited
understandings of the complex realities of the lives of girls and women.
Illustration by Mike McQuade; Source photograph by Carlo A / Getty
At the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, in 2012, the Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg if the world would look different with greater investments in girls and women. Sandberg, who was already famous for her “lean in” philosophy, said that the world would indeed look different. She explained, “The data is pretty clear that women spend ninety per cent of their income on their children. And men, I think it’s more like forty per cent.” She turned to the former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, then the executive director of U.N. Women, who corrected her estimation. Sandberg clarified: men spend “thirty to forty per cent.”
Over the years, I came across this statistic, again and again, on the Web sites and in the policy documents of the most powerful global development organizations, including the World Bank and United Nations agencies. It is often cited as the key piece of evidence that investing in poor girls and women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America creates a high rate of return. They will supposedly marry later and delay childbearing, and, in doing so, generate economic development, limit population growth, educate their children, improve children’s and women’s health, conserve environmental resources, and control the spread of H.I.V. They will end the so-called cycle of poverty in which individuals, families, communities, and nations get caught.