Key Questions & Concepts

The following is a brief overview of key questions and concepts related to the collection of gender and assets data in question/answer format.  For more information you can also download the Gender & Asset FAQ section of the GAAP Gender & Assets Toolkit

How do we define “assets”, and how can “assets” be categorized?

The stock of all resources that a person accesses, controls, or owns make up his or her assets. As stores of value for each person, an asset may increase or decrease in value over time, and it may also create new value (for example, through generating income). It may be liquid or illiquid, tangible or intangible, internally-embodied or externally-embodied. The term “asset” and the term “capital” are often used interchangeably.

Assets can be broadly categorized according to the following:

  • Natural resource capital such as land, water, trees, genetic resources;
  • Physical capital such as livestock, agricultural and business equipment, houses, consumer durables, vehicles and transportation, water supply and sanitation facilities, technology, and communications infrastructure;
  • Human capital such as education, skills, knowledge, health, nutrition, and labor power;
  • Financial capital such as savings, credit, and inflows (state transfers and remittances);
  • Social capital such as membership in organizations, networks that increase trust, ability to work together, access to opportunities, reciprocity, and informal safety nets; and
  • Political capital such as citizenship, enfranchisement, and effective participation in governance—often key to controlling rights over other assets.

Why focus on assets rather than income?

Control over and ownership of assets is a critical component of well-being. Increasing control and ownership of assets helps to create success in pathways out of poverty in comparison to interventions aimed at increasing income or consumption alone. For example, a woman who owns a plot of land can use the land to grow produce for home consumption or sale. Alternatively she can rent or sell the land if she needs money or use the land as collateral to get a loan. Assets are typically sold for income; however, many can also be used to create additional income. For example, with education—a type of intangible asset— the initial investment has potential pay-offs over every period of a person’s life, allowing him or her to access better paid and more stable work opportunities.

Because assets are long-term stores of value, they can also be used to help protect individuals or households against negative shocks. Income and consumption are subject to fluctuations where loss of employment and sickness can suddenly and dramatically change household security. On the other hand, assets can accumulate over time and are more resilient to fluctuation. Furthermore, asset ownership may carry intangible benefits such as increasing self-esteem and social status which are associated with both individual and household well-being. The relationship between assets and income can be summarized as follows: assets are a stock, income is a flow derived from those assets.

Why is it important to study the distribution of asset access, control, and ownership across different male and female household members, rather than simply looking at the total number of assets held by the household? Why should we collect asset ownership data at the individual level rather than the household level?

 A common assumption made in economics and many development projects is that of the “unitary” household model – that is, the assumption that households are groups of individuals who have the same preferences and fully pool their resources. However, this assumption may in fact hide inequalities in access to assets that exist within the household. There is now a growing body of evidence that suggests that while some assets in a household are jointly held, many assets within households are also held individually by the men, women and children who comprise households.[1] The distribution of assets across individuals within a household may, in turn, affect individuals’ intra-household bargaining power when individual preferences over outcomes differ.  Many studies have concluded that not only do women typically have fewer assets than men, but they also use the assets they have differently. Increasing women’s control over assets, mainly land, physical, and financial assets, has been found to positively affect a number of important development outcomes for the household—including  food security, child nutrition, and education—as well as the women’s own well-being.

Aside from the gender dynamics, numerous studies have shown that information collected at the household level is not sufficient to measure specific ownership within the household. For example, a land title is not titled in the name of a household, it is titled in the name of a specific household member.

Does the term “gender” refer to a focus on women? When one refers to a focus on “gender and assets” are they are interested only in women’s assets?

No, although “a focus on gender” is often incorrectly interpreted as “a focus on women,” the study of gender differences refers to the study of both men and women in relation to each other. Therefore, in studying gender and assets, it is not enough to just look at women’s assets. It is important to understand the relative position of men and women, with respect to assets. In particular, one should take into account differences in the value, quantity, and quality of assets owned by men and women within the same household. In mainstream economics, the conceptual reasoning for considering the relative versus absolute holding of men and women is that it has implications for the bargaining power when two individuals have different preferences over outcomes. If we observe trends only in men’s asset ownership or only in women’s asset ownership, we miss the full picture.

What is the “gender-asset gap”, and why does it persist?

Development research has shown that there is a gap in the number and value of specific assets held by men and by women. The reasons for this gap include many factors, which are often context-specific. In many cultures, there are socio-cultural perceptions that women “should not” own particular types of assets (i.e. land, cattle, high levels of schooling) or be involved in certain types of activities associated with assets (i.e. operating a water pump or riding a bicycle). These more active, “masculine” activities instead tend to be associated with men. Given these social perceptions, women face more constraints relative to men in acquiring assets, using assets, or gaining ownership rights to assets. These constraints are attributed to barriers for access to resources, mobility, knowledge and/or information, and legal standing. In some cases, women may simply tend to have different preferences or physical capacity than men for particular assets. In order to bridge this gap, accumulated evidence highlights some best practices and tools to increase women’s asset holdings. It aims to uncover: 1) how to target women with development interventions; 2) how to improve participation in development interventions, and; 3) what to do to increase the chances that women will benefit from agricultural development projects. For example, one intervention seeks to work with men to change attitudes and behaviors that limit women’s economic opportunities.  However, incorporating gender into program implementation is often challenging. First of all, many programs do not directly include gender-related outcomes, such as reducing the gender-asset gap, in their program targets and therefore it is difficult to mobilize resources to include gender-specific design components. Second, even when gender is included as a specific goal, the methods shown to be effective are often not widely utilized in program implementation. For example, many interventions focus on women and men separately (for example, focusing only on reaching “numbers” of women) and ignore how they relate to one another, leading to negative impacts on gender dynamics.

[1] Haddad et al. (1997); Behrman (1997).