New paper on relationship between autonomy and decision making contributes to understanding and measurement of women’s empowerment


by PIM | August 7, 2018

Women Dairy Farmers Learning About the Role of Gender in Bangladesh. Photo credit: Akram Ali/CARE Bangladesh Strengthening the Dairy Value Chain (SDVC) project/2011

Despite widespread agreement on the importance of women’s empowerment, ambiguity still exists about how best to define and measure it. While some aggregate indexes have been developed and validated to capture the multidimensional nature of empowerment across different contexts, such as the WEAI and the Sexual Relationship Power Scale, there is increasing need for adaptable indicators that can be applied to project-specific domains of interest.

In their new paper “Context and measurement: An analysis of the relationship between intrahousehold decision making and autonomy” (World Development, 2018), authors Greg Seymour and Amber Peterman use data on men and women from Bangladesh and Ghana to analyze whether respondents who report sole decision making in a particular domain tend to experience stronger (or weaker) feelings of autonomous motivation than those who report joint decision making.

The study finds that the significance of association between feelings of autonomous motivation and sole and joint decision-making, respectively, differs between men and women. Whereas men and women in Bangladesh tend to clearly distinguish between sole and joint decision making, this is less the case for those in Ghana. In particular, joint decision making on agricultural matters is a stronger predictor of autonomy than sole decision making for women in Bangladesh, while in Ghana, neither mode of decision making seems to predict autonomy. This pattern may be attributable to several factors, such as differences in social norms governing the organization of agricultural production, social interactions, and family responsibilities. For example, given the male-dominated farming system and restrictions on women’s mobility in Bangladesh, women may believe they will achieve better productive outcomes if their partners have some input and decision-making authority over productive domains and thus associate autonomy more strongly with joint decision making.

The analysis reveals that the relationship between sole or joint decision making and autonomy varies according to the specific decision domain. Most notably, sole and joint decision making predict autonomy differently depending on whether the decision is agricultural or personal in nature. Specifically, results from Bangladesh suggest that as decisions become more personal in nature autonomy begins to be more strongly associated with making decisions by oneself rather than with someone else.

Study also find that agreement on decision making among couples does, in certain instances, affect the way in which individuals associate sole or joint decision making with autonomy. How decisions are made—whether solely or jointly—appears to matter more for the prediction of autonomy when couples disagree on decision making than when they agree. Authors believe that the level of agreement on decision making may reveal something important about the underlying power dynamics within the household, and as such, is a subject worthy of future attention among researchers trying to measure individual-level empowerment or agency.

“One of the main implications of our study is to reject the common practice of treating sole and joint decision making as equivalent indicators of individual decision-making power. Instead, measurement of individual decision-making power—and to some extent, women’s empowerment—may be improved by constructing indicators that capitalize on differences in men’s and women’s perceptions of sole and joint decision making. A similar case, based on our results, can be made for constructing indicators of couples’ agreement on decision making, which may reveal something important about the underlying power dynamics within households. We advise all researchers interested in using decision making indicators undertake an analysis of how men and women perceive sole and joint decision making. Our study provides one example of a survey-based approach. Alternative methods, such as qualitative fieldwork, are also possible and may even yield clearer insights given the nuances involved in individual perceptions of decision making. Results of these analyses may be invaluable as means of calibrating indicators of empowerment to suit specific contexts.”


Seymour, Gregory; and Peterman, Amber. 2018. Context and measurement: An analysis of the relationship between intrahousehold decision making and autonomy. World Development 111 (November 2018): 97-112. Available online 17 July 2018.

This study was undertaken as part of and funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), led by IFPRI and supported by the CGIAR Funders.

Other recent PIM publications on women's empowerment:

Journal article: Women’s empowerment in agriculture and agricultural productivity

Do men and women benefit equally from technology adoption? New paper explores

Journal article: Using cognitive interviewing to improve the WEAI survey instruments

Journal article: Women in agriculture: Four myths

Measuring women’s empowerment: three new papers

PIM Webinars:

Women in agriculture: Four myths

The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index – What have we learned?

Cash transfer programs and intimate partner violence – Lessons from 3 case studies around the globe


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