If you’ve done much survey research, you’re probably familiar with controversies over how to map out households, and in particular whether to assume that a married man is by default the household head. The Center for Global Development and Data2X recently shared the discussion from an interesting event on this topic. As the authors Mayra Buvinic and Dominique van de Walle note,
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.
They lay out three reasons why assigning headship according to gender can be a bad idea.
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.
However, they don’t feel that the concept should be dropped immediately. One salient point is that many cultures still do in practice designate one adult to make the major household decisions, and ignoring this designation would throw away useful data. In addition,
We would argue that analyzing households by their head’s gender can be a reliable source of information for:
- 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.
- Female headship, when it captures marital dissolution and widowhood (Africa) or unpartnered motherhood (Latin America), often signals vulnerability and disadvantage for women and children.
- The growing numbers of female heads resulting from wars and violent conflict signal both vulnerabilities and economic and political opportunities for women.