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Who is the head of your household? It probably depends on who you ask. In my household, you will either find out that I am the head of the household, my husband is the head of the household, or that my bulldog is the head of my household. It depends on how you measure. Is it who makes most of the decisions? Is it who makes the most money? Is it who spends most of the money? Is it who the waiter brings the bill to?


This is an important question that is a standard indicator used all over the world in data collection, especially by projects in developing countries. Whether or not I qualify for various programs, whether or not you think your project is working, and many more answers to research questions are entirely depending on who is the head of the household and how it is defined.


And yet we almost never know.


A lot of projects and donors and large organizations measure and report progress broken out or disaggregated by the gender of the head of the household. And there are many good reasons for this.  When there are limited budgets, prioritizing households that might benefit the most from resources or projects makes sense. When calculating impact and progress, it’s very helpful to disaggregate findings along key social power dynamics in order to understand what’s going on in a more nuanced way.


From the World Bank:


“The household is regarded as the fundamental social and economic unit of society. Transformation at the household form, therefore, has impact at the aggregate level of a country. An increasing number of female-headed households (FHHs) in developing countries are emerging as a result of economic changes, economic downturns and social pressures, rather than as a product of cultural patterns. In many developing countries of Asia and Latin American, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of FHHs. The majority of women in FHHs in developing countries are widowed, and to a lesser extent divorced or separated. In the developed countries most female-headed households consist of women who are never married or who are divorced. The feminization of poverty – the process whereby poverty becomes more concentrated among Individuals living in female-headed households – is a key concept for describing FHH social and economic levels. The composition of a household plays a role in the determining other characteristics of a household, such as how many children are sent to school and the distribution of family income”

The World Bank provides microdata as part of their open data initiatives. They break out many of their indicators by Female Headed Households and Male Headed Households. When you look into the metadata this is what you find:


“The definition of female-headed household differs greatly across countries, making cross-country comparison difficult. In some cases it is assumed that a woman cannot be the head of any household with an adult male, because of sex-biased stereotype. Caution should be used in interpreting the data.”


We did a survey of sixteen different projects and did not find agreement between the projects or even within the projects on which of these households would be recorded as a Female Headed Household:

It’s extremely hard to find reliable information on how Female-Headed Household is defined in any given data product. And the results make a very big difference.


We’re working on a financial inclusion project in Uganda, Ghana, and Tanzania. And we’re conducting an impact analysis. The donor and stakeholders want the progress and the impact broken out between Female-Headed Households and Male Headed Households. 


Using the data from our project we analyzed the data in three different ways. First, we split the households into Female-Headed Households and Male-Headed Households based on the answer the female respondents gave to an open-ended question about who was the head of the household. Second, we split the household into Female-Headed Households and Male-Headed Households by defining a Male-Headed Household any household that had an adult male that contributes over 50% of the household income, whether living in the household or sending remittances from a different location. Third, we split the households by calling a Female-Headed Household all households in which there are no men over the age of 16 living in the household. 


In our current analysis, there are significant differences in results depending on which definition is used:

It’s not always the case that this definition is unexamined. Here’s an example of some great research by Oxfam in which they shared careful notes on how households were defined and the difference each definition made in the analysis. This article is paywalled. If you’d like to be able to read the whole thing but can’t afford it right now, please send me an email. 


The way that we define the head of a household matters not only to the people being defined but also to the actual results of your research. Make sure you know what your definition is, and how it impacts the equity in your results.