We can’t close the gender gap without closing the data gap

The United Nations General Assembly is currently in session. Leaders and Foreign Ministers from around the world are in New York. There’s a lot happening. While refugee flows and the conflict in Syria have dominated headlines, they are not the only significant issues being addressed.

An IDM study is underway in Nepal. Sumitra, 42, is not a direct participant in the study but like many other women and men, she is working to rebuild the town of Sakhu 18 months after the 2015 earthquake. Here, she is transporting locally-made bricks for a new public tap that will provide water for the village. Shelter and water are two of IDM’s 15 dimensions. Photo: Alice Floyd, Nepal, August 2016

The United Nations General Assembly is currently in session.  Leaders and Foreign Ministers from around the world are in New York. There’s a lot happening. While refugee flows and the conflict in Syria have dominated headlines, they are not the only significant issues being addressed.

Overnight our time, the Australian Foreign Minister, the Hon. Julie Bishop MP, co-hosted the launch of a new public-private partnership to close gender data gaps and support Sustainable Development Goals monitoring and accountability, ‘Making Every Woman and Girl Count’.  She joined Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates, Executive Director at UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Executive Director of the UN Foundation’s Data2X initiative to transform gender data access and use, Emily Courey Pryor.

This is a big deal. For years, leaders have made commitments to achieve gender equality. But we can’t really know whether and how the lives of women and girls are changing without gender-sensitive data. Unfortunately, for too many years, there has been limited investment in collecting data that shows how women and girls are doing compared to men and boys, in relation to areas of life that are important for gender equality – violence, access to contraception, hours spent on paid and unpaid work, having a say on decisions, within the family and the community.

The result? Huge gaps in the data about the circumstances of women and girls across the globe.  UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon highlighted this in his opening address at today’s launch:

“Gender equality is central to all of the Sustainable Development Goals.  But currently 11 of the 14 indicators on gender equality lack adequate data or accepted international standards for measurement. This limits our ability to track progress. ‘Making Every Woman and Girl Count’ …will help improve the production and accessibility of high quality gender-sensitive data on inclusion and discrimination.  This in turn will give us the tools to empower women and girls. Elevating half of humanity will lift us all.”

As Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka added, ‘Right now we don’t have data to monitor 80% of the indicators for SDG 5 [on gender equality]. That is serious.’  Part of the problem is ‘a chronic under investment’ in gender data.  Of the USD$131 million dollars invested in statistics by OECD Development Assistance Committee members, only 2% goes to gender data.  Without good data, it’s not possible to get an accurate picture of what needs to change. This makes it more difficult to target our efforts, and know if they are making a difference.  As Melinda Gates puts it, ‘We can’t close the gender gap without closing the data gap’.

Investing in change

A key driver of the current focus on improving gender data is the need to measure progress on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, which confirm agreed global priorities for the next 14 years, to 2030.  Australia is the first country to invest in a major way in the ‘Making Every Woman and Girl Count’ initiative to close gender data gaps and support SDGs monitoring and accountability.  Why?  In the words of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop:

“I’m a passionate believer in evidence based policy development…  The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development …cannot be achieved unless the human rights of women and girls are realised.  …But to track how we are progressing, we need the data and there is a widespread lack of data about women and girls.  Frankly we do not know what’s happening in many countries in terms of empowering women and girls, the quantity and the quality of work that is available, the prevalence of domestic and other forms of violence against women and girls.

“For too long… key gender related indicators have just been unavailable… Our decision to invest in helping to meet this critical need reflects the Government’s priorities in terms of achieving real progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment… I urge donor countries, partner Governments and other development actors today to join in what is a critical effort to get the data, to get the evidence so we can make the policies that count.”

Melinda Gates echoed the Foreign Minister’s position:

Gender data is absolutely foundational to all this work… When I worked at Microsoft, we didn’t make decisions without good data. So when I started to look at this gender work and why had we made so little progress on behalf of women, it kept coming back to the fact that we don’t actually have good data… So if we want to do what we say we are going to do on the SDGs we have to get data and we have to track data and then we can make progress.”

Supporting the global commitment to leave no one behind

One of the five big transformative shifts identified in the Global Goals process is ‘to leave no one behind’ – no person regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status is denied basic economic opportunities and human rights. To know if we are leaving no one behind, we need to assess how the circumstances of individuals are changing, or not.  To do this, we need quality data about individuals.

This brings us to another area where the Australian Government is investing in global change, as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop highlighted this morning:

“Globally we still capture data at a household level so it makes it impossible to accurately assess the impact of poverty, for example, by sex, age, disability, ethnic back ground and other factors. So I would collect it at the individual level…  The Australian Government [has] started a very innovative world-first initiative to work with the Australian National University to come up with a measure at the individual level. It’s called an Individual Deprivation Measure.  So my magic wand would be to enable us to collect at the individual level… That means we’d be able to capture the different forms of disadvantage and truly deliver on the concept that no one should be left behind.”

This new four year partnership between the Australian Government, the ANU and the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) builds on the ground-breaking international research collaboration that developed the Individual Deprivation Measure (IDM) and established the feasibility of individual-level, gender-sensitive, multidimensional poverty measurement.  The goal of the initiative is that by 2020 the IDM is ready for global use as an individual measure of deprivation and a tool for tracking how development is changing the lives of the most deprived.

Individuals are not the same.  By assessing individual circumstances in relation to 15 key social and economic dimensions, it is possible to capture multiple and intersecting forms of disadvantage, and understand what is required to leave no one behind.

As Emily Courey Pryor of Data2X emphasised, to realise these global commitments ‘we need the ability to track our progress, to course correct, to measure success and to share results to drive action and investment.’  We need to support data collectors and producers ‘to ask the right questions which generate data without gender bias and to know how to analyse and translate results’; support policy makers to invest in data and make evidence-based decisions; know ‘more about what private sector sources of data can tell us about girls’ and women’s lives and contributions’. And finally, we need ‘civil society advocates, journalists and communities calling for gender data, translating and tracking that data, and using that data to hold decision makers accountable for change.’ So, let’s ‘not just talk about gender equality but measure and celebrate how we are achieving it.’

Closing the gender data gap is essential to gender equality and women’s empowerment. If we measure what matters and use the information to invest in what matters, ambitious change is possible.