Gender and beneficial ownership transparency

  • Publication date: 28 April 2022
  • Author: Lubumbe Van de Velde

Limitations of using sex-disaggregated beneficial ownership data for gender equality

The research also identified limitations of using sex-disaggregated data collected through BOT for gender equality purposes within the broader context of women’s enterprise, including:

  • issues relating to data accuracy and reliability;
  • a limited focus on formalised enterprise.

Data accuracy and reliability

The use of sex-disaggregated BO data can be limited by the lack of accuracy and reliability. At times, it is gender imbalances in society that directly contribute to this. For instance, research suggests that women form part of a vulnerable group in society who are sometimes falsely declared as beneficial owners to conceal the real owners of a company.[74] In some jurisdictions, it is common to disclose wives as beneficial owners of companies where the husbands are the actual beneficial owners.[75] Furthermore, jurisdictions may legally assume that assets and debts acquired during a marriage are communal goods co-owned by married couples unless the couples explicitly opt for the separation of goods.[76]

People may also falsely take advantage of affirmative action procurement opportunities aimed at women, including public officials diverting resources intended to redress inequalities. If women are falsely disclosed as beneficial owners, this also skews the information on the size of the inequality. Research in Kenya shows that businesses falsely claiming to have different characteristics – also known as fronting – threaten businesses owned by disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, including women.[77]

Governments can address some of these limitations through effective verification, such as cross-checking against other datasets, or through third parties such as notaries and lawyers, to both ensure that the person is who they say they are and that they do in fact hold a beneficial interest in the company in question.

Informality of women’s enterprise

Research on women’s enterprise shows that measuring women’s formal company ownership may lead to women’s participation in enterprise being underrepresented where women’s economic participation is largely informal. Sex data of beneficial owners may, therefore, be inadequate to conduct an in-depth analysis on women’s economic empowerment. For example, it is estimated that women own about one-third of companies on the African continent. However, most working women are not formal entrepreneurs but are instead self-employed and own-account workers in the informal sector. The informal sector is vital to emerging economies, and it is often the entry point for broadening participation in the private sector.[78]

Gender in company ownership matters because women face specific institutional and legal barriers to formalising and growing their businesses.[79] Where company ownership is defined through formalised businesses, contributions to the economy made by women whose businesses are informal are underrepresented, as their contributions are not captured through the mechanisms used to monitor and target specific businesses for preferential treatment. Using sex-disaggregated BO data to monitor gender equality may reinforce the underrepresentation of women’s contribution to the economy, and undermine its utility in monitoring and implementing gender equality policy aims. Additionally, using formal business ownership as a criteria for affirmative action targets women who have already been able to overcome these barriers.

Furthermore, the effects of company ownership on women’s lived experiences extends far beyond formalised companies. Companies are part of the social fabric wherever they operate, and they have significant influence on policy, legislation, and social and cultural norms, including gendered power relations.[80] Yet, companies are rarely held responsible for either their influence in exacerbating gender inequalities in society or their role in alleviating these inequalities. If company ownership is narrowly focused on formalised businesses, then the participation of women’s informally owned businesses in policy making – including aspects of gender equality – will be limited.

Nonetheless, if these limitations are duly considered, women’s BO may still offer insights into women’s contributions to the economy, especially if combined with other sources of data. Governments could read these contributions to the economy and women’s economic empowerment in conjunction with other aspects of women’s enterprise, for example, by including women’s business management, sole proprietorship, self-employment, and business ownership in the formal and informal sectors.


[74] “Beneficial owner: What is inside Ukrainian business register”, Anti-Corruption Action Centre.

[75] Jenny Congrave and Artur Gomktsyan, “The Armenia Good Governance Fund and Gender Equality”, WOW Helpdesk Query No. 45 (London: WOW Helpdesk, May 2020), 17-18,

[76] Sofía Ramírez, “¿Te vas a casar? ¿Qué régimen para contraer matrimonio te conviene más: bienes separados o mancomunados ?”, Business Insider México, 11 February 2021,

[77] Muchai and Simeoni, “SDG 5: Women, macroeconomic policies and the SDGs”.

[78] Elena Bardasi, C. Mark Blackden, and Juan Carlos Guzman, Gender, Entrepreneurship, and Competitiveness in Africa (Washington DC: World Bank, January 2007), 81,

[79] Ibid, 1.

[80] Bourke Martignoni and Umlas, “Gender-responsive due diligence for business actors: Human rights-based approaches”.

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