How we define women’s empowerment or autonomy using decisionmaking questions in the DHS surveys (and similar questions in other surveys) has always bothered me. I’m glad someone decided to look into it rigorously.
While there has been little evidence explicitly testing indicators and sources of bias in conventional intrahousehold decisionmaking, the literature does discuss a number of reoccurring limitations. The first is around the treatment of jointness in decisionmaking. Although questions are typically sensitive enough to identify whether a decision is made solely by the woman or jointly by the woman and someone else, how should we treat these distinctions? Whereas it is tempting to assume for all cases that an autonomous decision, relative to a joint decision, is the one in which the woman has more power, the rationale for that possible ranking must clearly be conditioned on household composition. In a household with several adult members, a woman is more likely to make joint decisions based on sharing of resources and responsibilities. In addition, in such cases, it is often difficult to understand in the presentation of indicators with whom the decision is being made jointly and how much that matters for rankings. The implications for women’s empowerment may be very different if the woman is making a decision jointly with her spouse or if she is making it jointly with her father, mother-in-law, or son. Further, in western societies, we often think that in the most equitable partnerships, decisions are discussed through open communication and made jointly. Therefore, it could be claimed that joint 5 decisions should be ranked equal to or preferred to sole decisions; however, the actual dynamic may vary case by case. The issue of jointness further interacts with the importance of the decisionmaking domain. For example, one woman may make a sole decision on a relatively less important domain (for example, daily food preparation) and another woman a joint decision on a relatively more important domain (for example, purchase of a house). In this case, how would we rank or interpret their decisionmaking power relative to each other?
From a new paper by Amber Peterman and colleagues on women’s decisionmaking indicators and their usefulness. (Emphasis added by me).