The zombie stat that sucks the brains from development programmes


Note: I wrote this back in 2012 on my old blog. I thought the stat had quietly died the death, but this year it reappeared more prominently than ever, circulating widely on memes on social media, and even used by Annie Lennox in her Guardian piece. There’s a good Washington Post take on it here, but here is my interpretation.  

I bang on about this, partly just because it really annoys me when people unashamedly share demonstrably false statistics in any context, but this particular one is outrageous due to the manner in which it shamelessly ignores and denies the staggering inequality between the world’s rich – including rich women – and the rest of the planet. 

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In 1984 a poultry farmer called Sun Guiying became the first Chinese peasant to buy her own car. I still recall the government-authorised photos of her, standing with her family in front of their shiny Toyota. Now we can look back on her beaming smile as a watershed in global economic history. Recently Forbes reported that Chinese women are queuing up to buy luxury sports cars. A third of China’s millionaires are women, and there are now three times as many Maseratis and twice as many Ferraris sold in that country as in the west. Hold that thought.

In a interview with Caitlin Moran published in Slate magazine today, we were told that only one percent of the world’s wealth is owned by women.  It’s a familiar claim. It can also be found in the introduction to Kat Banyard’s Equality Illusion, and last year, in a sobering open letter to mark the recent International Women’s Day, singer Annie Lennox, a UN Ambassador for Women, reminded us of the full version: “women do two-thirds of the world’s work for a paltry 10 per cent of the world’s income, and own just 1% of the means of production.”

I use the word ‘reminded’ with care, because we’ve heard this claim before. It’s been used on previous International Women’s Days, and is regularly quoted by the UN, the World Bank, or anyone who takes their information from that source. Lennox’s letter was printed in dozens of leading national newspapers around the world, and according to Google on the relevant day it was re-published on the internet 10,800 times in 24 hours. So it must be true. Must it not?

Perhaps it was once. The claim goes back to before the first days of the internet, before the earliest of online archives. Indeed you can trace right back to the programme notes for the UN Women’s Conference, Copenhagen, 1980, which references a 1978 International Labour Organisation paper which was no more specific than “according to some estimates…”

Suppose it was once true, back in the mid to late seventies. Could it be that with everything that has happened in the past 30+ years, the massive expansion of the female workforce in the developed world, the economic growth of China and India, the economic liberalisation of Russia and Eastern Europe, all this has made precisely zero difference to the global average wealth of women? It seems unlikely to say the least.

The American sociologist Philip N Cohen has been tracking what he calls the “1% meme” for years. He has dedicated considerable effort to establishing whether the claim could be true.

When we think of the number of dirt-poor, destitute women in the world, you might think it seems credible. But wait. The vast bulk of the world’s wealth is concentrated in a tiny number of hands; hands that include the likes of Lillian Bettancourt, Elizabeth Windsor and Oprah Winfrey. Indeed, Cohen has calculated that just one small specific group – single American women – hold between 1.6% and 3% of the world’s wealth between them. So even if the entire net wealth of the world’s married women, all European, Chinese and Japanese women, every other woman on the planet were precisely zero, the figure still could not be true.

When the World Bank launched its World Development report last Autumn, President Robert Zoellick used the stat in his speech, even though it does not appear in the report itself. Nonetheless the Wall Street Journal and others reported it as if it did.

If the world’s most powerful economic body won’t kill off this zombie, who will? There is plenty of valid, incontrovertible evidence as to the economic, social and political repression of many women in many parts of the world. Depending upon 30 year old factoids of dubious provenance doesn’t make the case for global women’s liberation, it casts a cloud of doubt over even the most reliable statistics. It also traps the debate like a fly in amber, oblivious to genuine progress, change and achievement. Meanwhile the achievements and stories of so many women around the world, those who have followed in the footsteps of Sun Guiying, are erased from the picture, with little remaining but the fading memory of a smile.

Comments

  1. Glen Poole says

    Excellent, excellent article Ally and worth republishing on a regular basis.

    Do you have any comments on the other stats promoted by Annie Lennox?

    Women do twice as much work as men?

    Women earn 10% of the world’s income?

    Best

    Glen

  2. Ally Fogg says

    thanks Glen [2]

    The two stats you mention come as part of the same package as the 1 percent meme, and are equally false, Both are explained in the Washington Post article today that I link to in the intro note.

    The rest of her stats all seem to come from UN / OECD-type links, which from experience tend to be referenced to other UN documents in an endless merry-go-round. I don’t think any of them have any kind of peer-reviewed academic research behind them, some are close to meaningless in statistical terms, as they do not relate to any kind of comparison or baseline.

  3. H.E. Pennypacker says

    Women’s day did seem to herald a rather extreme slew of appalling articles this year. I started reading something on the The Nation (I think, could have been somewhere else) and the the quality of the writing and argumentation was just unbelievably awful. Making a claim in one paragraph and then in the next making another that contradicted the previous one.

    It mad me think. Ally and others, do you know of any good feminist journalists/commentators? Sometimes clicking links from facebook or browsing the guardian/major feminist blogs makes me so depressed with feminism that I have to go and read some good academic feminists before I turn into an MRA. I know loads of lovely and perfectly reasonable feminists. I read academic articles and books by perfectly reasonable feminists. But every time I see a journalistic article by a feminist it’s pretty ropey at best and makes-me-want-to-bang-my-head-against-a-wall at worst.

  4. Marduk says

    I followed it down the rabbit hole once. The official line terminates in a UNESCO speech. The apparent origin is something somewhat different to do with ownership of a specific grade of agriculutral land in Africa although it turns out this was a bit specious and an armchair economic thing based on a misunderstanding of cultural practices.

    The claim is impossible, widows in Florida alone surely hold more wealth.

  5. 123454321 says

    Another great article, Ally! These lies that feminists keep dishing out to the public is really beginning to drive widespread feminist intolerance. Actually, the intolerance has been growing at a pace for quite a while and there is no u-turn on that one – shame! It’s as if feminists will use any tactic in the hope that they will push men further and further down the pile while they climb to the top of their heap of lies. This is why many men (and some women) are calling it a supremacy/hate movement, because every single one of their “factual” statements show absolutely no concern for men or boys other than to push them further and further down the pile of shit and lies. These ridiculous lies, claims, actions and inactions by western feminists are diverting anger towards feminism and thus taking the spotlight away from those women in the less developed counties who we should recognise need help. Pretty damned disgusting if you ask me and how stupid can you get!

    I wonder how long it will be before Mike Buchanan issues a special award to Annie!

  6. badgersdaughter says

    OK, boys. Ally’s a feminist and is trying to set the rest of us straight so we’re not relying on bad information. This is good for the cause of gender equality. Being resentful little whiners is bad for gender equality because it makes us feminists feel like the only adults in the room. Please keep sight of the goal, which is equality and community, not put-downs and partisanship.

  7. says

    I did the “where do you come on the global wealth scale” thing that was posted around here a few weeks ago.

    As I earn pretty much smack on the average for the UK , I fall squarely into the top 1% of earnings.

    However, when I assessed my overall wealth on the same scale I didn’t even make the top 25%. That’s because every month I hand over fully half of my take home to a multi millionaire who was fortunate enough to have the capital to buy my flat and priced me out.

    I am totally in support of feminism (and anti racism and disability rights and support these campaigns in developing countries ) because once the majority of the worlds population attains my level of privilege, there might be a concerted effort to tackle the real enemy of equality.

  8. StillGjenganger says

    @BadgersDaughter 8
    There is more to this than just feminism and equality (equality on whose terms, for one thing). Much as I like equality and community, men have interests too, that are not in all cases and for all purposes identical to women’s. But then ‘resentful little whiners’ (sorry, 12345) do even more damage to men’s interests than they do to women’s

  9. 123454321 says

    “Being resentful little whiners is bad for gender equality because it makes us feminists feel like the only adults in the room.”

    With all due respect, all I ever see feminists do (the ones who choose to ignore men no matter how hard men have it) is to whine about literally everything, even when they are better off! I won’t bother to start a list of female privileges as I don’t have a couple of days to spare. I don’t see Ally as a feminist. I think he’s half crawled out of that cesspit. He appears to be seeing beyond the smoke and mirrors and shedding some light in places that few people dare venture. I see Ally as an evolving Humanist.

    No apology required StillG. The scales have been tipped and the pendulum swung using the energy from an eruption of feminist whining on a mass scale over the last few decades. I’m completely in favour of equality and choices for women and I agree that some of their campaigns have addressed the imbalance, but many battles have only been won using significant amounts of collaborative whining. It was only right. But it amuses (as well as angers) me how a small amount of whining from men who care about men’s issues gets such negative and dismissive attention!!! If men continue to simply stay silent they will get trampled all over and all the issues that you raise on this blog will become even worse for the future of our men and boys. What else can men do to get their issues taken seriously? Politics, dismisses men’s rights as a non-starter. the media won’t even go there. Men in general are too ashamed to speak out (e.g. domestic violence). So if we are to tackle serious issues such as DV, homelessness, suicide, Father’s rights etc. what are we supposed to do, just stay silent and hope feminists with all their power will help? I won’t hold my breath!

  10. StillGjenganger says

    @123454321 11
    What we can do? What I wish we would do (it is beyond me, I am afraid) is to get together a coherent, reasonable idea of what our interests are and where we want to go. Then present it in a rational manner and start looking for practical ways of implementing it, allies and necessary compromises, etc. Generally get the discussion on to practical future goals, and away from all this resentment against feminists. The resentment may have its justification, but if we do not get well and truly beyond it, we will not get anywhere. And, as BadgersDaughter said, we will look less adult than the other side.

  11. 123454321 says

    StillG, yes I agree, but nothing is happening, or at least nowhere near fast enough. The passion for realignment of men’s rights/issues is clearly building around the internet (probably based around reasons associated with anonymity) but relatively speaking the internet is still a narrow field which doesn’t cast a net wide enough to cover major channel outlets in the media such as mainstream TV and radio. Moreover, the media is now saturated with female-friendly, man-bashing material which sells and is safe in terms of social acceptance so it’s especially difficult for men’s issues to move to the forefront. An almost impossible situation which could could have been straightenend out by feminism itself (in the name of true equality) but is now far too late because I believe feminism, due to it’s one-sided, bigoted agenda, has become a dirty word!

  12. says

    When we think of the number of dirt-poor, destitute women in the world, you might think it seems credible. But wait. The vast bulk of the world’s wealth is concentrated in a tiny number of hands; hands that include the likes of Lillian Bettancourt, Elizabeth Windsor and Oprah Winfrey.

    That may be true, but in itself, it doesn’t exactly refute the “zombie stat.” And that could be one reason we still have a “zombie stat:” no one has anything to replace it with. At least I don’t see you citing anything in the way of a more accurate and up-to-date figure. That doesn’t mean the zombie-stat is true, of course, but it should remind us that you can’t replace something with nothing. (Oh, and if by “Elizabeth Windsor” you mean the Queen of England, I’d say she doesn’t own that much of the wealth she enjoys — I’m willing to bet most of it is the property of the UK, and the House of Commons can take it away from her with one vote. So it’s kinda iffy to say all that wealth is “concentrated” in her hands.)

    Indeed, Cohen has calculated that just one small specific group – single American women – hold between 1.6% and 3% of the world’s wealth between them. So even if the entire net wealth of the world’s married women, all European, Chinese and Japanese women, every other woman on the planet were precisely zero, the figure still could not be true.

    Are you sure about that? It seems to me than when you add all those other women to the calculation, the average would change, in a downward direction, if they had much less wealth than American women. Maybe not to exactly 1%, but closer to it.

  13. StillGjenganger says

    Moreover, the media is now saturated with female-friendly, man-bashing material which sells and is safe in terms of social acceptance so it’s especially difficult for men’s issues to move to the forefront

    That is as may be, but we still need to decide on a case and then make that case ourselves. The various historical feminists also found their cause ‘very difficult to move to the forefront’. And seeing that they a) had obviously larger problems to deal with, and b) were working with social trends in a way we are not, feminists could permit themselves to explore weird ideas without being ignored as a bunch of kooks – in a way that I do not think we can.

  14. says

    Oh, and…

    …all I ever see feminists do…

    The feminists you see are not exactly a representative sample of feminists in general.

  15. Ally Fogg says

    Raging Bee [14]

    That may be true, but in itself, it doesn’t exactly refute the “zombie stat.” And that could be one reason we still have a “zombie stat:” no one has anything to replace it with. At least I don’t see you citing anything in the way of a more accurate and up-to-date figure.

    Oh come on. You are almost certainly right that nobody knows what the true figure is, but that is no excuse for continuing to use one that is at least 35 years out of date and wasn’t even necessarily accurate when it was new. If we do not know what proportion of the world’s wealth etc is held by women, then fair enough, but we can’t claim we do know. If we want to quote statistics to demonstrate the state of the world, use statistics that are recent and from an identifiable, reliable source. I’m sure there are plenty of academic researchers in the field of economic development who could provide a long list of statistics if someone from the UN were to ask or even spend a few quid commissioning the research.

    (Oh, and if by “Elizabeth Windsor” you mean the Queen of England, I’d say she doesn’t own that much of the wealth she enjoys — I’m willing to bet most of it is the property of the UK, and the House of Commons can take it away from her with one vote. So it’s kinda iffy to say all that wealth is “concentrated” in her hands.)

    No, you are wrong, she is independently one of the richest women in the world with her own legal wealth and property estate. Even if we were to abolish the monarchy tomorrow and strip her of all crown holdings and estate, she would still be one of the richest women in the world.

    It seems to me than when you add all those other women to the calculation, the average would change, in a downward direction, if they had much less wealth than American women. Maybe not to exactly 1%, but closer to it.

    No, because we are not talking average wealth per head. We are talking the actual lump sum money. In other words of all the quantifiable wealth on earth, out of every $100, between $1.60 and $3.00 is held by single American women. So to know what the total wealth held by all women on Earth, you would have to add the wealth held by all other women to that, not average it out.

  16. says

    If we do not know what proportion of the world’s wealth etc is held by women, then fair enough, but we can’t claim we do know.

    It’s not about claiming to know, so much as going with the information we have. That’s what I mean when I say you can’t replace something with nothing.

    If we want to quote statistics to demonstrate the state of the world, use statistics that are recent and from an identifiable, reliable source.

    I’m all for that — but you still have yet to cite such a source. Have you found one at all? If not, then for all practical purposes, that damn 1% figure could still be the best we have.

    No, because we are not talking average wealth per head. We are talking the actual lump sum money.

    Okay, correction noted, thanks.

  17. 123454321 says

    Thanks Ally for correcting today’s bowel movement from RB. It’s a horrible job but someone has to do it!

  18. Ally Fogg says

    It’s not about claiming to know, so much as going with the information we have. That’s what I mean when I say you can’t replace something with nothing.

    Of course you can replace something with nothing. If we know for a fact that the information we have cannot be true then it is downright dishonest to keep using it. We might as well just pull a number out of our rectums and say “Women now control precisely 42.9765% of the world’s wealth.”

    For what it is worth, a quick Google found this, from Forbes. Feel free to check their sources, I’ll willingly concede I have not done so.

    The Federal Reserve reports that women control 51.3 percent of all wealth in the United States. By 2020 that number is projected to grow to two-thirds. A second BCG study showed that one in three high net worth individuals (those with assets over $250,000) are women. And their wealth will grow at 8 percent per year.

    The female economy is one of the largest on earth. Women earn $13 trillion in earnings and control $20 trillion of consumer spending. That’s three times the GDP of China! Furthermore, as more women become entrepreneurs (they start businesses at twice the national average), they will have yet more money to spend, leverage and invest. BCG claims that 20 percent of women’s wealth is squirreled away in checking and savings accounts. Just think of what kind of additional fees and value-added a savvy banker could reap by actually paying attention to what women want in the way of financial services.

    Incidentally, the Global GDP is about $87 trillion according to Wiki, so on that basis, American women’s earnings (so excluding retained wealth) are equivalent to about 15% of the world’s GDP.

  19. Ally Fogg says

    Oh, and to add, Oxfam just reported that more than 50% of the world’s wealth is controlled by the richest 1%.

  20. corvidd says

    @ Raging Bee,

    In this case, when dealing with something that’s decades out of date and was of dubious validity even when it was constructed, settling for the unknown is the better option, or at the very least, adding a disclaimer to citations of the 1% stat to inform readers/listeners of its age and the fact that the original sources/estimates , mentioned initially in a 1978 paper which ostensibly doesn’t even provide citations of it’s own, but rather makes a woolly reference to ” by some estimates ” are themselves murky.

    The genesis of the statistic is ostensibly this extract from the editor of the “Women at Work” journal in a 1978 edition :

    “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.”

    The fact that there are representatives of branches of a major intergovernmental organisation using this shoddy statistic over three decades later is an embarrassment in my opinion, and completely unnecessary to highlight the wealth disparities between men and women.

    Note : Here https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/stop-that-feminist-viral-statistic-meme/ Cohen talks about a 2007 book that the woman who originally mentioned the stat authored. It fleshes things out a small bit, but it’s still shaky, and doesn’t alter the fact that an aged and dubious statistic is being used 37 years on, in a world that has undergone profound changes in the interval.

  21. corvidd says

    @ Ally

    Lennox talks about ” means of production” which is surely distinct from pure ” wealth ” no ? Not sure if she was using the notion that women own 1% of the world’s wealth as interchangeable with women own 1% of the means of production, but the two are different I thought.

  22. Holms says

    #11 1234
    With all due respect, all I ever see feminists do (the ones who choose to ignore men no matter how hard men have it) is to whine about literally everything, even when they are better off!

    Completely contradicted by every feminist writer on this network and over at SkepChick, and most of the commenters besides… but sure, yeah you go ahead and spout that drivel.

  23. Ally Fogg says

    Corvidd (23)

    the exact same statistic is variously presented as ‘wealth’, ‘property’ or ‘the means of production’.

    When Lennox wrote it two years ago she used ‘the means of production’ this year she used ‘property.’

    Since none of the claims have any evidential basis, it doesn’t really matter much!

    And it is a bit of a dubious statistic anyway. Ownership of the means of production, in the modern era, is mostly ownership of stocks and shares.

  24. 123454321 says

    Incidentally, didn’t Annie Lennox write a song called “Would I lie to you?” !!

  25. Yvonne says

    Interesting article!
    Are there really no other numbers around, about the division of wealth between sex and race? I just sent out this question to a few online groups – if I get any answers I’ll let anyone here know if they’re interested.

  26. collinmerenoff says

    There isn’t any anti-man campaign. It’s all just clickbait and astroturf.

    Do you all really expect me to believe there’s some secret society of women conspiring to ruin men’s lives?

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