The (Nonexistent) Factoid That’s Driving Social Change Efforts for Women

“Zombie statistics” sound scary. But while they won’t eat your brains, they can influence your thoughts - even though they aren’t real.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

“Zombie statistics” sound scary. But while they won’t eat your brains, they can influence your thoughts -- even though they aren’t real. (Credit: Fernando Rodrigues, Unsplash)

“Zombie statistics” sound scary. But while they won’t eat your brains, they can influence your thoughts — even though they aren’t real. (Credit: Fernando Rodrigues, Unsplash)

The word “zombie” can evoke images of shuffling, undead hordes pursuing living human meals. The phrase “zombie statistics,” however, may just leave you with a head full of question marks.

Zombie statistics, simply put, are tidbits of information that are frequently cited by experts and institutions, despite having no basis in research or reality. And Kathryn Moeller at Stanford University found a big one: “When an educated girl earns income, she reinvests 90 percent in her family, compared to 35 percent for a boy.”

It’s something we’ve certainly heard a lot about in our work. But here’s the thing — when Moeller went digging for a source to this claim, she was never able to find one. Instead, she found various institutions citing one another, without any of them actually taking responsibility for researching the statistic.

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When she discussed this with BBC World Service, she pointed out that this unsubstantiated item has been a “key piece of evidence” driving the creation and development of aid programs for girls and women — despite the lack of substance. “It brings up an important set of questions about data. We need valid, reliable gender data for policy-making.”

Moeller wrote about this phenomenon and its effects in greater depth for The New Yorker. “The rapid expansion of conditional cash transfer and micro-finance programs around the world … is based on the idea that giving money to women rather than men leads to significantly higher development returns,” she says.

Of course, there is plenty of valid data to focus on instead, in particular the numbers surrounding the impact entrepreneurship has on women’s lives.  Researchers — real ones — have found that, with the right resources, women do feel more empowered when they are running their own businesses — happier, too.

Research also shows that there is some truth to the idea that women have altruistic motivations for their work. We found in our own effort, 1,000 Stories, that investing in family and community is a strong driver of women’s entrepreneurship. We heard again and again that women started up with others in mind, and measured success by their broader impact.

The 1,000 women who participated in our multi-year project, completed in 2015 in partnership with Babson College, highlighted social or emotional components to their work that extended well beyond a desire to make money. Only 8 percent of the women we heard from defined success based on financial gain, while 26 percent talked about helping or inspiring others, and 17 percent mentioned satisfying customers or employees. When they did mention money, it was often in the same breath as taking care of family, workers, customers and others.

[Related: Learn More About Our 1,000+ Stories Project]

“Whether they’re women entrepreneurs or women in government or women in corporate leadership, they want to make a difference, and so they’re motivated to have an impact on the world beyond profits,” Susan G. Duffy, executive director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College, told us.

But the hurdles they have to overcome to make that difference — for themselves and for others — are also well-documented. Female founders received a paltry 2 percent of all VC funding awarded in 2017 — with less than 1 percent of that given to women of color. Crises of confidence also disproportionately impact female entrepreneurs.

As for Moeller, she did get the World Bank to remove the zombie statistic she discovered from their website. The Gates Foundation and the United Nations also told her they had stopped citing it. It’s an important step, but Moeller agrees that there are still very real economic inequalities faced by girls and women for those and other organizations to address.

“[D]evelopment policies need to address the underlying conditions that produce poverty and inequality,” she adds. “Only when those root causes are addressed will we have gender justice.” For women, economic independence through entrepreneurship is one effective, well- documented way to work toward this seemingly ever elusive goal.

[Related: There Are 1 Billion Unbanked Women in the World. This Mobile Initiative Could Transform Their Lives]

Posted: February 27, 2019

Candice Helfand-RogersThe (Nonexistent) Factoid That’s Driving Social Change Efforts for Women