Male-headed households continue to own more land and wealth than female-headed households in developing countries, but the picture may be reversing in cities, researchers have found.
A survey tried to establish whether there is a connection between household wealth and the gender of the head of the household. It found that male-headed households own up to 13 per cent more asset wealth and 28 per cent more land than female-headed households.
The results are based on a survey undertaken by USAID (the US Agency for International Development), which cover wealth indicators such as indoor plumbing, concrete floors, bicycle ownership and land ownership.
"We were able to test [gender inequality] at the household level, at the village level and at the national level," says lead author Brendan Fisher, an environmental economist at the University of Vermont in the United States.
The survey found that women in many countries are less able than men to secure land rights, due to legal and educational barriers. But it also found that female-headed households in cities are often wealthier than male-headed ones (see chart), showing that there is no straightforward correlation between gender and poverty.
Achieving gender equality is one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, which came into effect this year. But the study, published in PLOS ONE on 1 March, found that global and national indicators - such as the UN's Human Development Index - do not give an accurate picture of local inequality.
For example, the analysis shows that, on average, women in Senegal have higher levels of asset and land wealth than men, but the picture varies in different parts of the country.
This is because improvements to gender equality, such as access to education and jobs for women, mainly benefit women in urban areas, says Ibrahima Aidara, a programme manager at the Dakar-based Open Society Initiative for West Africa, which aims to improve governance.
"You can now see a growing female middle class," says Aidara, but he adds that cultural norms around women's roles in society act as ongoing barriers to gender equality, particularly in rural areas, where people are typically less educated.
Fisher says scientists and policymakers need to look inside countries to understand what truly drives inequality. "Relying on [national-level statistics] could point us in the wrong direction or get us to ignore regions in which [local] inequality is very high," he says.
The study suggests that localised analysis of gender inequality could also demonstrate in more detail the benefits of giving women more choices in life.
"Improving gender equality has an incredible amount of knock-on benefits", including on education, child health and natural resource management, Fisher says.