Saturday, September 3

Updating an Incorrect Statistic

This December, it will have been five years since I created the "It Only Takes a Girl" video. Like any piece of information or media that is five years old, this video is a little outdated. Don't get me wrong: child marriages are still a huge issue around the world, and girls' education is still an area that demands significant improvement. In fact, the Malala Fund recently announced that, according to a new UNESCO report, more than 130 million girls around the world are still out of school. This is completely unacceptable.

No matter how bleak the facts are, though, we want to be careful never to exaggerate or overstate what’s going on. Honesty and transparency are vital to any movement.

I received an email recently from a friend of a friend pointing out an incorrect statistic in my video. She said:

There’s some powerful stuff in [this video] and this is certainly a worthwhile cause.

However, with all due respect, [you] may want to correct some erroneous statistics about property ownership by women in [your] video. Check out this article.

The key paragraph is:

"She cited a paper that she co-wrote with Quisumbing and other researchers, based on studies across Africa, that found that on average, across 10 countries in Africa, 39 percent of women and 48 of men reported owning land. This was often joint ownership, as 'only 12 percent of women report owning land individually, while 31 percent of men do so.' So men generally own more property than women. But women own far more than just 1 percent."

I think it’s very important to be as truthful as possible so as not to give critics a foothold for their arguments.

I really appreciated this email, and I completely agree that it is vital to be as truthful as possible, especially in activist work. One stumble, and people tend to discredit the whole movement.

Since posting my video five years ago, I have indeed come across the research that has corrected the “1% of property myth.” I had gotten my original statistic for the video directly from the UNIFEM website, which actually no longer exists. At the time that I was making the video in 2011, there was no research to suggest that this statistic was not true (at least, none that was readily available to me). Since then, smart people have actually looked into and disputed this statistic, which does not hold up under scrutiny.

Now, of course, it is too late for me to change my video. But moving forward, I always plan to be extremely discerning in the statistics that I choose to use. In fact, I want to go into a career in data science, which is all about interpreting data and using statistics to tell as truthful a story as possible about the state of the world we live in.

I appreciate being challenged, and I always respect when people do not take information at face value. As the saying goes, there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. (I was tempted to attribute this quote to Mark Twain, but going along with the theme of this post, I actually did some research to see who the source of this quote really was. Turns out, it was not Mark Twain who originally said it, and the actual source is unknown!).

If any readers notice any other errors in my video—or in any other media you consume—I encourage you to do your due diligence and challenge the source. It is vital to spread the message that girls around the world are still being oppressed on the basis of gender, but exaggerating the facts does no one any good.