Data is essential to achieving the goals expressed by feminist advocates and lawmakers—yet we are still grappling to collect and use data that highlights the unique experiences of women and girls and reveals barriers to gender equality. This lack of data can mask and, at times, even perpetuate sexism and misogyny.
As the global community embarks on various initiatives to boost gender equality, we can, and must, do better.
“Gender data” is a term used for any data that reflects differences in the situations of women, men, girls and boys. The term, which became popular after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, highlights the importance of transparency, accountability and accuracy within our data—three areas in which it needs vast improvement.
The issue with gender data is not only that we have so little, but that the data we do have does not accurately reflect reality. Leading thinkers on gender data, from organizations such as Data2X, Center for Global Development, the World Bank, Equal Measures 2030 and UN Women, are uncovering the flaws in current research methodologies that have led to inaccurate and incomplete data on the status of women and girls. They recognize that the old ways of doing research—interviewing the male head of household only, not disaggregating data by sex and age, using outdated measurements of time-use and collecting data on household impacts rather than individual impacts—are innately biased and no longer acceptable. Furthermore, subjective matters that we care about, such as empowerment and agency, are not well-defined and not easily measured.
Insufficient gender data is not only an issue of technical measurement and methodology. Organizations continue to produce limited or inaccurate gender data because the alternative is perceived to be timely and costly—but small and affordable changes can be made to the way that we collect gender data, resulting in significantly better information that can improve programming and outcomes for women and girls. And these results are well worth the small additional costs.
Having accurate and complete data is essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Across the 17 Global Goals, there are 54 targets, goals and indicators that are gender-specific—yet only 26 percent of the necessary data for monitoring these indicators is currently available.
UN Women recently released a comprehensive report on gender and the Sustainable Development Goals showing that achieving gender equality is integral to each of the Global Goals; they urged the community of practice to improve data collection and make it more timely and regular. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will require organizations to be innovative in the ways they collect data, and to work together to share best practices as we push for systems-level change.
In addition to working with local groups to improve data usage on the ground, advocates should continue to use existing evidence of what works and highlight data gaps to shape their messages. Too often, there is a disconnect between research, advocacy and programming. Understandably, it can be difficult for those not directly involved in research to keep up with the latest information. This challenge has been exacerbated in the wake of the SDGs, as there are numerous indicators to report on.
This was the impetus for Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security to create a WPS Index. In collaboration with the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, the institute drew on a number of recognized data sources to rank 153 countries on the condition of women and their empowerment in homes, communities and societies more broadly. This tool can be used to shape messages about women’s inclusion, security and access to justice in the context of the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda.
Donors must fund improved monitoring, evaluation and research of programs so that we can better understand what works in improving the lives of women and girls. Organizations and their funders should also consider the importance of training women at the local level to collect and analyze data with the aim of improving local capacity to gather and use data—including national statistics. Equipping local women’s groups with data and evidence, and teaching them how to analyze and use this data in advocacy and programming, could be transformative for the lives of women and girls.
It is also critical that researchers, donors, program managers and advocates communicate with each other, share available data and collection strategies that prove effective and base their decisions on gender-responsive evidence. Advocates must always reflect on how we can improve policies and practices to collect more and better gender data, and how to set up systems conducive to using and learning from this data.
We need to understand data and use it properly in order to know where gender gaps have been closed and identify where we need additional efforts. If we are truly committed to achieving gender equality, we will meet these critical challenges and surmount them together.