The Debate about Headship in Poverty and Gender Studies

Disagreement exists over the usefulness of the concept of headship in household surveys, and of the use of female headship in the analysis of poverty. Some researchers even argue for getting rid of the headship concept altogether and for organizing the household roster instead around a chosen “primary respondent,” whatever her status in the household. CGD and Data2X recently hosted a conversation on this topic with experts on both survey instruments and gender issues. This blog post captures some of the main ideas discussed.

Traditionally, the uses of household headship have been both practical and conceptual. First, the delineation of a head is universally used in household surveys as a practical organizing principle to map out the household roster and relationships between household members. Second, comparing households according to the sex of the designated head has been used as a way to assess gender inequalities. Indeed, female headship has been interpreted as a proxy for women’s poverty. For example, one often encounters the view that female-headed households (FHHs) are the poorest of the poor in the literature on the “feminization of poverty.”

Together, these two uses have given rise to a backlash among some observers and the proposal to do away with the headship concept. Here we lay out the arguments for and against.

Headship as an organizing principle

Three arguments against using headship to organize the household can be identified. First, headship as a concept is value-laden and reinforces patriarchal gender stereotypes that are important to resist. Gender-biased concepts and measures can perpetuate stereotypical notions that only men should be heads of household. Second, assigning a head also depends on subjective assessments by household members. Finally, headship may also perpetuate gender bias if interviewers are themselves predisposed towards attributing headship to adult males. The conclusion to this line of reasoning is that getting rid of these data and organizing the household around a “primary household respondent” would solve the problem of using a construct that is not reducible.

On the “for” side, there are a few rebuttals to these arguments. One is that survey interviewers must be rigorously trained to not impose their prejudices on the data collection. This applies to all data, not just the head’s identity.

Another response is that in many contexts, across different cultures and societies, the notion of who is the “head” is meaningful and easily recognized, and agreed upon by household members. This observation does not imply that this acknowledged “head” is also the main breadwinner or decisionmaker, or the most knowledgeable about the household. The roster construct and data collection are separable issues. Survey respondents should be chosen based on their knowledge of survey topics of interest.

In certain contexts, such as sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, households often have vertically and horizontally complex structures. For example, African polygamous households can be very large, and it is practical to organize the household around the person to whom most members are directly linked. Many households in Latin America, especially among the urban poor, include sub-families headed by single mothers and their children. How household constituents relate to the head and one another may be vital to understanding issues of policy relevance, including who in the household should be the recipient of government cash transfers.

Headship as a lens on gender inequalities and poverty

Analysts interested in capturing women’s poverty often delineate between female and male-headed households (FHH and MHH, respectively) to study and make claims about the gender dimensions of inequality and poverty. Although some researchers have made progress in using limited partial indicators of welfare such as consumption of specific goods that can be assigned to individuals (combined with economic models of the household) to infer inequality and poverty within households, these approaches still have their limitations. Headship gender is unlikely to tell us much about gender inequality without individual-level data on welfare.

Headship can still be a useful lens on household-level poverty. However, “lazy comparisons” between FHHs and MHHs (in the words of one expert at the event) are still all too common and often deceptive. In many parts of the developing world, a female head is frequently the result of an unusual situation that is correlated with poverty—such as childbearing outside of marriage, the dissolution of a marriage, and households without adult men. The ability of FHHs to flourish in gender unequal societies, and hence their living standards and well-being, depends very critically on how they were formed.

An upcoming paper focusing on sub-Saharan Africa emphasizes the importance of accounting for attributes that specifically disadvantage FHHs when comparing poverty by headship. African FHHs are diverse, varying across key characteristics, such as the marital or union status of the head and whether a husband or other male adult member is a remitting migrant. These households were also found to be significantly smaller than MHHs. This implies that using a per capita welfare measure will exaggerate the poverty of MHHs and understate that of FHHs as long as there are scale economies in consumption whereby two people can live more cheaply together than alone.

On average, and as a whole, when using household per capita consumption as the welfare indicator, Africa’s FHHs have lower poverty rates than MHHs. Many poverty assessments stop there. However, digging deeper, this poverty ranking is not found across all countries or regions. And it is reversed for much of Africa once one relaxes the implausible assumption that there are no economies of scale in consumption. Poverty comparisons by gender of headship in Africa that do not allow for the pronounced disparities in household size, marital status, and the presence of a male adult could well be meaningless.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, never-married, divorced, and widowed women-headed households are poorer on average than their male-headed counterparts. Married female heads are more likely to receive remittances than MHHs, likely driving their relatively higher standards of living than other types of households. However, the presence of a male adult is also shown to be relevant for the well-being of FHHs, particularly in rural areas. Male adults provide labor and remain the gatekeepers of women’s access to legal rights and productive assets such as land, credit, and economic and political networks in African societies. With important heterogeneities and sensitivities to the use of the per capita welfare indicator, FHHs with a male adult who are typically larger unconditionally fare better on average than the smaller FHHs without a male adult. However, this ranking is fully explained and reversed by differences in household size and demographic composition.

While some types of FHHs are better off than the average MHH, many (including those headed by widows or divorcees) are among the poorest. In the African context, anti-poverty policies concerned with reaching poor and vulnerable households should make use of headship gender in conjunction with the head’s marital status and the household’s demographics.

Finally, we would argue that analyzing households by their head’s gender can be a reliable source of information for:

  1. Monitoring changes in society and family dynamics. The growing number of women heading households in prime adult age groups can signal social change towards gender equality and away from patriarchal family structures.
  2. Female headship, when it captures marital dissolution and widowhood (Africa) or unpartnered motherhood (LA), often signals vulnerability and disadvantage for women and children.
  3. The growing numbers of female heads resulting from wars and violent conflict signal both vulnerabilities and economic and political opportunities for women.

We conclude that dropping household headship in survey instruments is somewhat akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. First, depending on the context, data on who is the household’s recognized head provides valuable information about the household and its structure. Second, when thoughtfully analyzed by allowing for the reality of legal, economic, and power structures in society and families, the sex of the household head can contribute significantly to our understanding of economy-level gender dynamics and inequalities across households.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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