Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Measuring Women’s Empowerment: A Critical Review of Current Practices and Recommendations for Researchers


Women’s empowerment is an intrinsic human rights goal that has implications for the health and well-being of women and their children. Poor measurement hampers current research efforts, and improving empowerment measurement is a frequently identified research priority. However, a discussion of specific steps researchers can take to improve upon common measurement practices is lacking. The purpose of this paper is to provide quantitative researchers recommendations to measure women’s empowerment in a theory-based, precise, and comprehensive way. This paper reviewed key theoretical concepts of women’s empowerment and critically reviewed common measurement approaches. Three broad recommendations for measuring empowerment emerged from this critical review, and specific suggestions to meet these recommendations are discussed. First, researchers should draw upon theory to construct measurement models (e.g., using theory to construct dimensions of empowerment and selection of indicators). Second, researchers should use analytic methods that minimize implicit judgments and bias (e.g., not classifying women as empowered using specific criteria). Third, researchers should collect comprehensive empowerment information (e.g., supplementing quantitative measures with qualitative interviews to learn how and why changes took place). Measuring empowerment poses a number of challenges, and this review provides researchers suggestions to improve upon common measurement practices. Improved measurement will strengthen research efforts on the causes and consequences of poor empowerment, which has the potential to improve the well-being of women and their children.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1

Adopted partially from Kabeer (1999)


  1. Agarwala, R., & Lynch, S. M. (2006). Refining the measurement of women’s autonomy: An international application of a multi-dimensional construct. Social Forces, 84(4), 2077–2098.

  2. Ahmed, A. U., Quisumbing, A. R., Nasreen, M., Hoddinott, J. F., & Bryan, E. (2009). Comparing food and cash transfers to the ultra poor in Bangladesh. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.

  3. Al Riyami, A., Afifi, M., & Mabry, R. M. (2004). Women’s autonomy, education and employment in Oman and their influence on contraceptive use. Reproductive Health Matters, 12(23), 144–154.

  4. Alkire, S., Meinzen-Dick, R., Peterman, A., Quisumbing, A., Seymour, G., & Vaz, A. (2013a). The women’s empowerment in agriculture index. Oxford: Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, University of Oxford.

  5. Alkire, S., Meinzen-Dick, R., Peterman, A., Quisumbing, A., Seymour, G., & Vaz, A. (2013b). The women’s empowerment in agriculture index. World Development, 52, 71–91.

  6. Allendorf, K. (2012). Women’s agency and the quality of family relationships in India. Population Research and Policy Review, 31(2), 187–206.

  7. Alsop, R., & Heinsohn, N. (2005). Measuring empowerment in practice: structuring analysis and framing indicators (Policy research working paper No. 3510). Washington: The World Bank.

  8. Basu, A. M., & Koolwal, G. B. (2005). Two concepts of female empowerment: some leads from DHS data on women’s status and reproductive health. In S. Kishor (Ed.), A focus on gender: collected papers on gender using DHS data (pp. 15–33). Calverton: ORC Macro.

  9. Batliwala, S. (1994). The meaning of women’s empowerment: new concepts from action. In G. Sen, A. Germain, & L. C. Chen (Eds.), Population policies reconsidered: health, empowerment, and rights (pp. 127–138). Boston: Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.

  10. Bloom, S. S., Wypij, D., & Das Gupta, M. (2001). Dimensions of women’s autonomy and the influence on maternal health care utilization in a north Indian city. Demography, 38(1), 67–78.

  11. Brown, T. A. (2006). Confirmatory factor analysis for applied research. New York: Guilford Publications.

  12. Brunson, E. K., Shell-Duncan, B., & Steele, M. (2009). Women’s autonomy and its relationship to children’s nutrition among the Rendille of northern Kenya. American Journal of Human Biology, 21(1), 55–64.

  13. Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA) & Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA). (2013). Final impact evaluation of the Saving for Change program in Mali, 2009–2012. Tuscon: University of Arizona.

  14. Carlson, G. J., Kordas, K., & Murray-Kolb, L. E. (2015). Associations between women’s autonomy and child nutritional status: A review of the literature. Maternal and Child Nutrition, 11(4), 452–482.

  15. Chakrabarti, S., & Biswas, C. S. (2012). An exploratory analysis of women’s empowerment in India: A structural equation modelling approach. Journal of Development Studies, 48(1), 164–180.

  16. Chakraborty, P., & Anderson, A. K. (2011). Maternal autonomy and low birth weight in India. Journal of Women’s Health, 20(9), 1373–1382.

  17. Chopra, D., & Müller, C. (2016). Introduction: Connecting perspectives on women’s empowerment. IDS Bulletin, 47(A1), 1–10.

  18. Corroon, M., Speizer, I. S., Fotso, J. C., Akiode, A., Saad, A., Calhoun, L., et al. (2014). The role of gender empowerment on reproductive health outcomes in urban Nigeria. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 18(1), 307–315.

  19. Crandall, A., VanderEnde, K., Cheong, Y. F., Dodell, S., & Yount, K. M. (2016). Women’s age at first marriage and postmarital agency in Egypt. Social Science Research, 57, 148–160.

  20. Deininger, K., & Liu, Y. (2013). Economic and social impacts of an innovative self-help group model in India. World Development, 43, 149–163.

  21. Desai, S., & Andrist, L. (2010). Gender scripts and age at marriage in India. Demography, 47(3), 667–687.

  22. Dharmalingam, A., & Philip Morgan, S. (1996). Women’s work, autonomy, and birth control: Evidence from two south Indian villages. Population Studies, 50(2), 187–201.

  23. D’Souza, R. M., & Bryant, J. H. (1999). Determinants of childhood mortality in slums of Karachi, Pakistan. Journal of Health and Population in Developing Countries, 2(1), 33–44.

  24. Egata, G., Berhane, Y., & Worku, A. (2014). Predictors of acute undernutrition among children aged 6 to 36 months in east rural Ethiopia: A community based nested case–control study. BMC Pediatrics, 14(1), 91.

  25. El-Zanaty, F., Way, A., Kishor, S., & Casterline, J. (1999). Egypt indepth study on the reasons for nonuse of family planning: Results of a panel survey in Upper Egypt. Calverton: National Population Council and Macro International Inc.

  26. Fapohunda, B. M., & Orobaton, N. G. (2013). When women deliver with no one present in Nigeria: Who, what, where and so what? PLoS ONE, 8(7), e69569.

  27. Fuller, R. (2012). Guatemala highlands value chain development alliance: project effectiveness review. Oxford: Oxfam Great Britain.

  28. Garikipati, S. (2013). Microcredit and women’s empowerment: have we been looking at the wrong indicators? Oxford Development Studies, 41(Suppl. 1), S53–S75.

  29. Ghuman, S. J., Lee, H. J., & Smith, H. L. (2006). Measurement of women’s autonomy according to women and their husbands: Results from five Asian countries. Social Science Research, 35(1), 1–28.

  30. Green, E. P., Blattman, C., Jamison, J., & Annan, J. (2015). Women’s entrepreneurship and intimate partner violence: A cluster randomized trial of microenterprise assistance and partner participation in post-conflict Uganda. Social Science and Medicine, 133, 177–188.

  31. Gupta, K., & Yesudian, P. P. (2006). Evidence of women’s empowerment in India: A study of socio-spatial disparities. GeoJournal, 65(4), 365–380.

  32. Hadley, C., Brewis, A., & Pike, I. (2010). Does less autonomy erode women’s health? Yes. No. Maybe. American Journal of Human Biology, 22(1), 103–110.

  33. Haile, Z. T., Chertok, I. R. A., & Teweldeberhan, A. K. (2013). Determinants of utilization of sufficient tetanus toxoid immunization during pregnancy: evidence from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, 2008–2009. Journal of Community Health, 38(3), 492–499.

  34. Hashemi, S. M., Schuler, S. R., & Riley, A. P. (1996). Rural credit programs and women’s empowerment in Bangladesh. World Development, 24(4), 635–653.

  35. Heaton, T. B., Huntsman, T. J., & Flake, D. F. (2005). The effects of status on women’s autonomy in Bolivia, Peru, and Nicaragua. Population Research and Policy Review, 24(3), 283–300.

  36. Hindin, M. J. (2000). Women’s power and anthropometric status in Zimbabwe. Social Science and Medicine, 51(10), 1517–1528.

  37. Hindin, M. J., & Adair, L. S. (2002). Who’s at risk? Factors associated with intimate partner violence in the Philippines. Social Science and Medicine, 55(8), 1385–1399.

  38. Ibrahim, S., & Alkire, S. (2007). Agency and empowerment: A proposal for internationally comparable indicators. Oxford Development Studies, 35(4), 379–403.

  39. James-Hawkins, L., Peters, C., VanderEnde, K., Bardin, L., & Yount, K. M. (2016). Women’s agency and its relationship to current contraceptive use in lower-and middle-income countries: A systematic review of the literature. Global Public Health, 1–16. doi:10.1080/17441692.2016.1239270.

  40. Jejeebhoy, S. J. (2000). Women’s autonomy in rural India: Its dimensions, determinants, and the influence of context. In H. Presser & G. Sen (Eds.), Female empowerment and demographic processes (pp. 204–238). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  41. Jejeebhoy, S. J., & Sathar, Z. A. (2001). Women’s autonomy in India and Pakistan: The influence of religion and region. Population and Development Review, 27(4), 687–712.

  42. Jensen, R., & Thornton, R. (2003). Early female marriage in the developing world. Gender & Development, 11(2), 9–19.

  43. Kabeer, N. (1999). Resources, agency, achievements: reflections on the measurement of women’s empowerment. Development and Change, 30(3), 435–464.

  44. Kabeer, N. (2001). Conflicts over credit: Re-evaluating the empowerment potential of loans to women in rural Bangladesh. World Development, 29(1), 63–84.

  45. Kabeer, N. (2011). Between affiliation and autonomy: navigating pathways of women’s empowerment and gender justice in rural Bangladesh. Development and Change, 42(2), 499–528.

  46. Kabeer, N. (2012). Women’s economic empowerment and inclusive growth: Labour markets and enterprise development (Discussion Paper 29/12). London: Centre for Development Policy and Research, School of Oriental and African Studies.

  47. Kabeer, N., Mahmud, S., & Tasneem, S. (2011). Does paid work provide a pathway to women’s empowerment? Empirical findings from Bangladesh (Working paper No. 375). Brighton, United Kingdom: Institute of Development Studies.

  48. Khandker, S. R. (1988). Determinants of women’s time allocation in rural Bangladesh. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 37(1), 111–126.

  49. Kim, J. C., Watts, C. H., Hargreaves, J. R., Ndhlovu, L. X., Phetla, G., Morison, L. A., et al. (2007). Understanding the impact of a microfinance-based intervention on women’s empowerment and the reduction of intimate partner violence in South Africa. American Journal of Public Health, 97(10), 1794–1802.

  50. Kishor, S. (2000). Empowerment of women in Egypt and links to the survival and health of their infants. In H. Presser & G. Sen (Eds.), Women’s empowerment and demographic processes: Moving beyond Cairo. New York: Oxford University Press.

  51. Kishor, S. (2005). Introduction. In S. Kishor (Ed.), A focus on gender: Collected papers on gender using DHS data. Calverton, MD: ORC Macro.

  52. Koenig, M. A., Ahmed, S., Hossain, M. B., & Mozumder, A. B. M. K. A. (2003). Women’s status and domestic violence in rural Bangladesh: individual- and community-level effects. Demography, 40(2), 269–288.

  53. Kritz, M. M., Makinwa-Adebusoye, P., & Gurak, D. T. (2000). The role of gender context in shaping reproductive behaviour in Nigeria. In H. Presser & G. Sen (Eds.), Women’s empowerment and demographic processes: Moving beyond Cairo. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  54. Lee-Rife, S. M. (2010). Women’s empowerment and reproductive experiences over the lifecourse. Social Science and Medicine, 71(3), 634–642.

  55. Legovini, A. (2005). Measuring women’s empowerment and the impact of Ethiopia’s women’s development initiatives project (Working paper No. 88496). Washington: World Bank Group.

  56. Lépine, A., & Strobl, E. (2013). The effect of women’s bargaining power on child nutrition in rural Senegal. World Development, 45, 17–30.

  57. Mabsout, R. (2011). Capability and health functioning in Ethiopian households. Social Indicators Research, 101(3), 359–389.

  58. Mahmud, S., Shah, N. M., & Becker, S. (2012). Measurement of women’s empowerment in rural Bangladesh. World Development, 40(3), 610–619.

  59. Malhotra, C., Malhotra, R., Ostbye, T., & Subramanian, S. V. (2014). Maternal autonomy and child health care utilization in India: Results from the National Family Health Survey. Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health, 26(4), 401–413.

  60. Malhotra, A., & Mather, M. (1997). Do schooling and work empower women in developing countries? Gender and domestic decisions in Sri Lanka. Sociological Forum, 12(4), 599–630.

  61. Malhotra, A., & Schuler, S. R. (2005). Women’s empowerment as a variable in international development. In D. Narayan (Ed.), Measuring empowerment: Cross-disciplinary perspectives (pp. 71–88). Washington: The World Bank.

  62. Mason, K. O. (1986). The status of women: Conceptual and methodological issues in demographic studies. Sociological Forum, 1(2), 284–300.

  63. Mason, K. O. (2003). Measuring empowerment: A social demographer’s view. Paper presented at the workshop on “measuring empowerment: Cross-disciplinary perspectives”, The World Bank, Washington.

  64. Mason, K. O., & Smith, H. L. (2000). Husbands’ versus wives’ fertility goals and use of contraception: the influence of gender context in five Asian countries. Demography, 37(3), 299–311.

  65. Mason, K. O., & Smith, H. L. (2003). Women’s empowerment and social context: Results from five Asian countries. Washington: Gender and Development Group, World Bank.

  66. Mistry, R., Galal, O., & Lu, M. (2009). Women’s autonomy and pregnancy care in rural India: a contextual analysis. Social Science and Medicine, 69(6), 926–933.

  67. Montgomery, R., Bhattacharya, D., & Hulms, D. (1996). Credit for the poor in Bangladesh. In D. Hulme & P. Mosley (Eds.), Finance against poverty (Vol. 2, pp. 86–158). London: Routledge.

  68. Morgan, S. P., & Niraula, B. B. (1995). Gender inequality and fertility in two Nepali villages. Population and Development Review, 21(3), 541–561.

  69. Mosedale, S. (2005). Assessing women’s empowerment: towards a conceptual framework. Journal of International Development, 17(2), 243–257.

  70. Mullany, B. C., Hindin, M. J., & Becker, S. (2005). Can women’s autonomy impede male involvement in pregnancy health in Katmandu, Nepal? Social Science and Medicine, 61(9), 1993–2006.

  71. Pahl, J. (1989). Money and marriage. London: Macmillan.

  72. Parveen, S. (2005). Empowerment of rural women in Bangladesh: A household level analysis. In W. Doppler & S. Bauer (Eds.), Farming and rural systems economics (Vol. 72). Weikersheim: Margraf.

  73. Pereznieto, P., & Taylor, G. (2014). A review of approaches and methods to measure economic empowerment of women and girls. Gender and Development, 22(2), 233–251.

  74. Pitt, M. M., Khandker, S. R., & Cartwright, J. (2006). Empowering women with micro finance: evidence from Bangladesh. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 54(4), 791–831.

  75. Pratley, P. (2016). Associations between quantitative measures of women’s empowerment and access to care and health status for mothers and their children: a systematic review of evidence from the developing world. Social Science and Medicine, 169, 119–131.

  76. Rahman, M., Hoque, M. A., & Makinoda, S. (2011). Intimate partner violence against women: is women empowerment a reducing factor? A study from a national Bangladeshi sample. Journal of Family Violence, 26(5), 411–420.

  77. Salem, R., Cheong, Y. F., & Yount, K. M. (2017). Is women’s work a pathway to their agency in rural Minya, Egypt? Social Indicators Research, 1–25. doi:10.1007/s11205-017-1573-9.

  78. Samman, E., & Santos, M. E. (2009). Agency and empowerment: a review of concepts, indicators and empirical evidence. Oxford: Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, University of Oxford.

  79. Sandberg, J., & Rafail, P. (2013). Measurement models of women’s autonomy using the 1998/1999 India DHS. Journal of Population Research, 30(4), 367–381.

  80. Schuler, S. R., Hashemi, S. M., & Riley, A. P. (1997). The influence of women’s changing roles and status in Bangladesh’s fertility transition: evidence from a study of credit programs and contraceptive use. World Development, 25(4), 563–575.

  81. Schuler, S. R., Islam, F., & Rottach, E. (2010). Women’s empowerment revisited: a case study from Bangladesh. Development in Practice, 20(7), 840–854.

  82. Shroff, M. R., Griffiths, P. L., Suchindran, C., Nagalla, B., Vazir, S., & Bentley, M. E. (2011). Does maternal autonomy influence feeding practices and infant growth in rural India? Social Science and Medicine, 73(3), 447–455.

  83. Silberschmidt, M. (1992). Have men become the weaker sex? Changing life situations in Kisii District, Kenya. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 30(2), 237–253.

  84. Story, W. T., & Burgard, S. A. (2012). Couples’ reports of household decision-making and the utilization of maternal health services in Bangladesh. Social Science and Medicine, 75(12), 2403–2411.

  85. Taylor, G., & Pereznieto, P. (2014). Review of evaluation approaches and methods used by interventions on women and girls’ economic empowerment. London: Overseas Development Institute.

  86. Thomas, D. (1997). Incomes, expenditures, and health outcomes: Evidence on intrahousehold resource allocation. In L. Haddad, J. Hoddinott, & H. Alderman (Eds.), Intrahousehold resource allocation in developing countries (pp. 142–164). Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

  87. Thorpe, S., VanderEnde, K., Peters, C., Bardin, L., & Yount, K. M. (2016). The influence of women’s empowerment on child immunization coverage in low, lower-middle, and upper-middle income countries: A systematic review of the literature. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 20(1), 172–186.

  88. United Nations Development Programme. (2015). Human development report 2015. New York: United Nations Development Programme.

  89. United Nations General Assembly. (2015). Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development. New York: United Nations.

  90. Upadhyay, U. D., Gipson, J. D., Withers, M., Lewis, S., Ciaraldi, E. J., Fraser, A., et al. (2014). Women’s empowerment and fertility: A review of the literature. Social Science and Medicine, 115, 111–120.

  91. Vyas, S., & Watts, C. (2009). How does economic empowerment affect women’s risk of intimate partner violence in low and middle income countries? A systematic review of published evidence. Journal of International Development, 21(5), 577–602.

  92. Yount, K. M., Dijkerman, S., Zureick-Brown, S., & VanderEnde, K. E. (2014). Women’s empowerment and generalized anxiety in Minya, Egypt. Social Science and Medicine, 106, 185–193.

  93. Yount, K. M., VanderEnde, K. E., Dodell, S., & Cheong, Y. F. (2016). Measurement of women’s agency in Egypt: A national validation study. Social Indicators Research, 128(3), 1171–1192.

Download references


The author thanks Dr. Norbert Schmitz for clarifying measurement-related concepts and Drs. Abby Lippman and Arijit Nandi for feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Funding was provided by the Spencer Foundation (Grant No. 242794), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (Grant No. T03-120314), and Regroupement Stratégique Santé Mondiale du Réseau de Recherché en Santé des Populations du Québec.

Author information

Correspondence to Robin A. Richardson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Richardson, R.A. Measuring Women’s Empowerment: A Critical Review of Current Practices and Recommendations for Researchers. Soc Indic Res 137, 539–557 (2018).

Download citation


  • Women’s empowerment
  • Empowerment
  • Women’s status
  • Autonomy
  • Measurement
  • Review