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Do more, use rigorous methods, and clearly acknowledge limits — these were the main messages of our recent forum on measuring and evaluating women’s economic empowerment. The event, a collaboration between CGD, United Nations Foundation, World Bank, ExxonMobil Foundation, and Plan International, generated a lively discussion about which measures and evaluation designs are best suited to monitor and assess the results of programs that empower women economically. As CGD president Nancy Birdsall noted in her welcoming remarks, the event was fittingly held in our Birdsall House conference center, a space dedicated to bringing together researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to share innovative work on gender and development.

Melanne Verveer, former US Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, provided the opening keynote address, which emphasized that economic participation is essential to helping women move “from pain to power.” Verveer said: “I have seen firsthand what a difference this work makes both in public policy and in terms of how it impacts so many whose lives are significantly enhanced.” She stressed the importance of grounding women’s economic empowerment programs on a “strong, evidence-based case” and underscored the need to invest in data collection. 

Setting the scene for the forum, UNF senior fellow Mayra Buvinic outlined UNF and ExxonMobil’s Measuring Women's Economic Empowerment report, which proposes guiding principles, outcomes, and indicators to measure women’s economic empowerment. Her presentation was aptly followed by a panel discussion, moderated by CGD’s Amanda Glassman, which provided researchers’ perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of M&E surrounding women’s economic empowerment efforts.  

  • Economist Jim Knowles outlined the different outcomes and indicators necessary to measure the economic activity of urban entrepreneurs and business leaders compared to rural women farmers and entrepreneurs. He described the challenges specific to measuring rural women’s economic activity and the need to measure at the household level.
  • Markus Goldstein from the World Bank’s Gender Innovation Lab, shared examples of the role impact evaluation can play in policymaking. For instance, an impact evaluation of a pilot land title registration program in Rwanda had shown how a policy of granting titles only to couples who were married was disenfranchising women. And as a result, the policy was amended before the project was taken to scale.
  • Oxford University’s Linda Scott outlined the importance of and challenges to creating internationally comparable, rigorous ways to measure women’s empowerment, including attitudes, agency and voice. She said rich data collection, triangulation, and multi-method research are key in measuring women’s economic empowerment.

“Today, foreign aid means less and less … and impact evaluations mean more and more,” said CGD senior fellow Bill Savedoff in his remarks between panels. Channeling his inner Hans Rosling (check out the video!), Savedoff showed that, today, foreign assistance to low- and middle-income countries represents a smaller share of those countries GNI. And foreign aid to those countries, he argued, is actually better spent on financing impact evaluations — they’re the best way to determine what’s working and what’s not.

The second panel, moderated by Noa Gimelli of ExxonMobil Foundation, centered on the challenges and successes of organizations running programs aimed at empowering women economically. Gimelli kicked off the conversation by explaining how ExxonMobil teamed up with the UNF to ensure its programs were aligned with the research on the most effective ways to increase women’s incomes — from what indicators to measure to how evaluations should be done. She then turned to the panelists:

  • Kate Spade’s Sydney Price offered insight into the company’s On Purpose initiative, which helps rural women in Rwanda become independent, profitable suppliers to Kate Spade and the broader fashion industry. Price admitted while they had “a Rolls Royce vision on a Fiat budget” when it came to M&E, they ultimately found a partner in Kigali who developed an evaluation of the program tied their company’s bottom line.
  • Henriette Kolb from the International Finance Corporation noted there is little point to doing an impact evaluation if the results aren’t shared in a language used and understood by the private sector. She said the ExxonMobil/UNF Roadmap, which simplified comprehensive background papers into a language IFC pracitioners and its private sector clients could understand, is a good example of how this can be done well.
  • TechnoServe’s Krisila Benson said ensuring benefits of — not just participation in — a program is essential yet challenging. For example, we know money in the hands of a woman, versus in the hands of a man, is more likely to improve children’s health. However, if a woman brings additional earnings into the home, she may not have the power to spend it. Thus, the benefit of a woman earning a salary may be less significant than hoped.
  • Tessie San Martin of Plan International USA, discussed how Plan evaluates its global women and management program. Similar to Benson, San Martin said the success of the program is not only about what happens to the women in the program, but also what happens to the organizations they work for and, even further, to their beneficiaries. 

To close out the event, US Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Deborah Birx spoke about DREAMS, a partnership between PEPFAR, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Nike Foundation that helps girls develop into Determined, Resilient, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe women. The program has launched 11 impact evaluations to determine if it’s causing a decline in HIV incidence. Finally, Ambassador Birx challenged the audience and the organizations they work for to continue to innovate around how to reach women and empower them, how to measure impact, and breaking down the barriers between researchers, funders, and people in the field. 

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