Over and over, we’ve heard arguments similar to this:
“Women make up half the population so we need to include them so we can [increase economic productivity, increase food supply, send children to school, etc.].”
But the thing is – women don’t make up half the population. Sure, worldwide it’s about 50/50 (49.6% women to 50.4% men). But in so many places the gender balance skews heavily male or female. It’s not just in obvious places that are known for sex-selective abortion and femicide (I’m looking at you, China). In some parts of the world, a village, town, or region could be closer to 40% or more women as a result of economic migration, war, or disease.
Let’s start with birth statistics. The sex ratio at birth – that is the number of boys born for every girl- is biologically 1.02 to 1.06 (UNFPA). However, that varies wildly by country – the result of sex selection through abortion and infant femicide. In the United States, for example, the ratio is actually 1.05, while in China and Croatia it is 1.16. See the map below for more.
Right away, then, women are less than half the world population. The under-5 mortality rate favors those who do make it to birth however – 43% of girls die by age 5 compared to 47% of boys (HNP statistics).
The gender ratio in China continues to be skewed throughout age cohort – between ages 5 and 9 the ratio is 1.17 (HNP statistics). By ages 20-24, the ratio is 1.11, while it is as high as 4.36 in Qatar! A few countries trend the other way – for example Burundi has an age 20-24 sex ratio of 0.94, significantly lower than the birth ratio of 1.03 (the cohort birth ratio, from approximately 1993, is not available, which is a whole other problem). Women continue to outlive men as they age, so that by the 65-69 age group, the world sex ratio is .90. In China, it is still 1.01. (Again, birth ratios for this cohort are not available). There are are whole host of biological, cultural, and environmental reasons why women have an overall lower mortality rate, but I won’t get into that here.
Although China has overall one of the most skewed sex ratios at birth, the Arab world has the most overall male-dominated populations. Qatar, as mentioned above, has the dubious honor of having the lowest female population percentage at 23.47%. This is interesting because the sex ratio at birth is a fairly average 1.05. By the age 20-24 cohort, it is a whopping 4.36, and while it comes down by 65-69, it is still 1.32. Why is this? Migration. Immigrant workers, mostly young and male, make up 76.95% of the Qatari population. While it’s difficult to tell precisely where these workers are coming from, it’s suggested that most come from India and Pakistan.
The tiny Caribbean island of Curacao has the largest female population, at 54.68%. The reason for their skewed sex ratio is less clear. Again, they have a fairly average sex ratio at birth of 1.05, but by the 20-24 age group, it is .89. A quick Google search suggests that sex trafficking may be a factor in the higher female population. Even so, this female-majority country is not as heavily skewed towards women as the Arab world is towards men. There are 6 countries in the world that have more than 54.68% men – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, Qatar.
Intra-country and lower-level data are much harder to come by. Anecdotally, rural Southern Africa is considered to be heavily female, while urban areas are primarily male. This may or may not be true, but rural to urban migration is usually men searching for work while their families remain home. This stereotype is not completely accurate, of course. In many Chinese factories, for example, young women are preferred because they are considered more detail-oriented and less likely to fight, but even that demographic is changing fast.
Women may be half the world in aggregate, but we can’t make assumptions. The point? When you head off to do a development project, start an NGO, or suggest policy, find out who your population is. Don’t just take the latest census data, divide by 2 and assume that is your gender ratio (and, yes, I’ve seen this used in development project evaluations. Taking the provincial population and dividing by 2 does not give an accurate representation of female and male beneficiaries!). Do some digging, talk to people, and strengthen data collection capacity where needed.