Published on Let's Talk Development

Why do spouses disagree about who makes household decisions?

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Francisco Guerrero 2016 Francisco Guerrero 2016

“Who is responsible for making household decisions?” If you ask a married couple this question, quite often men and women will give you a different answer . As seen in spousal surveys in a wide variety of countries and contexts, such as Tanzania, Ecuador, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, spouses give different answers about half the time. Existing evidence shows that these differences are not due to random measurement error, but rather are a sign of deeper issues that may not be well-captured in traditional household surveys. Researchers have hypothesized that spouses might give different answers because they understand the questions differently or they don’t have the same information about the decisions being made. But there is limited empirical evidence that explains which of these reasons is most important for explaining these widespread differences in reports on decision making.  

Why does it matter? 

Women’s decision making is often used as an indicator of women’s bargaining power in the household . Policymakers have an interest in accurately understanding women’s bargaining power because it is an important development outcome in itself and because the dynamics of household decision-making may both affect and be affected by the way different public programs are designed. Understanding why discrepancies in spousal reports of decision making exist can help us interpret existing statistics about decision making and improve data collection in the future.  

What did we do to understand this issue?  

In our recent paper, we use a spousal survey of 421 (heterosexual) farmer couples in the Philippines to measure the extent of spousal reporting discrepancies and to test three potential explanations for the differences:  

  1. Asymmetric interpretation:  men and women understand survey questions in different ways, resulting in different interpretations of what making a decision—and being a decision maker— 


  1. Asymmetric information: men and women are not always privy to the decisions made by their spouses, resulting in differing ideas about which decisions are made and who makes them.  

  1. Enumerator effects: the gender of the enumerator may influence the way that men and women respond to questions about decision making.  

What did we find out?  

Similar to other papers on this topic, we found that 50.2 percent of spouses disagree on who makes decisions in any given area. Overall, women were 17 percent more likely than their husbands to report that decisions were made jointly: a first indication that interpretations of what decision-making entails may systematically differ by gender. However, when spouses were forced to pick the one person who usually makes the final decision in the case of disagreement, 80 percent of them provided the same response, a huge increase.  

Our analysis strongly supports the idea that spouses give different answers about who makes decisions in the household because they interpret the meaning of decision making in different ways. Spouses are more likely to give the same answers to questions regarding the process behind the decision making compared to general questions on who makes the decisions (Figure 1). This suggests that spouses have similar perceptions of who is involved in decision making, but have differing interpretations of whether this participation constitutes being a decision maker. Given women’s greater likelihood of reporting joint decision making compared to men, women may focus on involvement in the decision-making process when weighing who is a decision maker—versus men who focus on who has the final authority when answering broad questions on decision making. We also find no evidence that spouses are more likely to agree on who makes decisions over specific activities compared to activities that are broadly defined. This suggests that spouses do not think of different activities when answering decision making questions.  

Figure 1: Spouses are much more likely to agree on the process of decision making than they are on the decision maker

Figure 1

Note: Orange bars represent agreement on the answer to general questions asking who makes various agricultural decisions, while green bars represent agreement over the decision-making process. 

We don’t find evidence that spouses give different answers because they have different information regarding the decisions being made. If these information gaps explained discrepancies in spousal reports about decision making, we would expect more spouses to give the same answers about activities in which they both participated. But we find the opposite trend: mutual participation in activities makes spouses less likely to give the same answers regarding the decision maker (Figure 2). This finding aligns with the evidence above–that men and women interpret differently what it means to make a decision. If both spouses participate in an activity, they are more likely to both be involved in the decision-making process, opening more room for interpretation of whether this involvement makes one a decision maker.   

Finally, while we find that the gender of the enumerator is associated with slightly different reports of decision making, the differences are small and cannot explain the larger discrepancies found in our data. 

Figure 2: Percentage of spouses that give the same answer when asked who the decision maker is for a certain activity

Figure 2

What do our findings mean for survey design?  

Given that people think differently about what it means to be a decision maker, statistical analysis needs to take into account who in the household is answering the questions . For data that have already been collected, using answers from multiple members of the household, when available, should be considered. For example, several studies show that well-being outcomes are better in households when both spouses agree that the woman makes some decisions, suggesting that using multiple reports can strengthen analysis. Including controls for enumerator’s gender when analyzing data on decision making is also useful.  

For new data collection, questions should be worded precisely to limit opportunities for differing interpretations among spouses. Instead of simply asking who the decision maker is, researchers can include questions about the decision-making process or about who makes the final decision. Spouses are more likely to give similar answers to these questions, which also result in richer information about decision-making within the household. Another option is to provide an explicit definition to survey respondents of what constitutes decision making before the questions are asked.  


Sundas Liaqat

Consultant at the World Bank Group

Aletheia Amalia Donald

Economist, Gender Innovation Lab, World Bank

Hillary C. Johnson

Economist, East Asia and Pacific Gender Innovation Lab, World Bank

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