Closing the gender gap requires closing the data gap

By Sarah Hendriks, Director, Gender Equality, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Read the Development Co-operation Report 2017 to find out more about data for development

DCR ID for blogIn many ways the world now is in better shape than ever. The global poverty rate fell below 10%; we see 9 out of 10 girls and boys entering primary school, and around 85% of all the world’s children are vaccinated against the most common diseases.

While we have come a long way, challenges remain. Perhaps the most pressing one is gender equality, since it affects all other areas of a society’s development. Nowhere in the world are males and females truly equal. Women learn less, earn less, have fewer rights and have less control over their assets and bodies. One stark example is that women are less likely to be financially included: 1.1 billion women around the world still do not have a formal bank account.

Underpinning these gaps, one challenge is particularly acute for women and girls: data.

Data blind spots in global development are many, and that’s one reason why this year’s Development Co-operation Report from the OECD is focusing on Data for Development. To deliver on the ambitious 17 Global Goals we need better gender data.

The data gaps when it comes to women and girls are alarming. Even the most basic information on women and girls is often lacking: when they are born, how many hours they work, if and what they earn, whether they’ve experienced violence and the cause of death. In too many areas, disaggregated data doesn’t exist at all, or data collection is “sexist”, leaving women and girls out of the data collection process, or missing the priorities that matter to them.

Women and girls remain undervalued and undercounted.

The problem is exacerbated by gaps in political will, funding and capacity. Society typically only measures what it values, so we see that only 13% of countries dedicate a budget to gender statistics and many lack the national strategies and training needed to ensure robust gender data collection.

Closing the gender gap requires closing the data gap. Some donors invest in statistical capacity in developing countries, but it was only at 0.25% of total ODA in 2014 according to a 2016 OECD report. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is investing USD 80 million to improve gender data, evidence and accountability, and to support women’s movements that often use data to advocate for change in their country or community. This effort includes support for UN Women’s flagship programme on gender data, together with the governments of Australia, Ireland and the United States. It involves future support for an initiative to build networks of in-country hubs to improve evidence on programming and policies targeting women’s economic empowerment.

Many of us working in development have seen the results on the ground. We have listened to women explaining how improved maternal care changed their family’s life for the better and we have seen how access to financial services turns young women into entrepreneurs employing others. We all have these examples of development co-operation that works, but too often we lack the data to give the full story and show the impact on society as a whole. Without evidence these stories often become anecdotal examples of little value.

Many donors can do more in this field. We call on donors and governments that care about advancing progress for women and girls to join in, prioritise and increase investments in gender data and evidence. The needs are many – from filling data gaps, to strengthening national capacity, to reducing bias by harmonising approaches for data collection, to supporting access by women’s organisations to data.

Encouragingly, we have some strong commitments to move forward. At the Family Planning Summit in July of this year, the UK government together with the governments of Belgium, Canada, Germany and a number of other partners made a commitment to collect, use and report age and sex-disaggregated data, including for adolescents, within their development assistance for family planning.

The first step to ending inequality is making the invisible, visible — bringing the everyday realities of women and girls to life in clear and undeniable ways. With more and better data we can not only advocate for gender equality but also follow and show progress for girls and women around the world. With more and better data we can take better decisions to support the aspirations of families striving for a decent life.

In short, better data is at the core of everything we hope to achieve through the Sustainable Development Goals. So let’s make women and girls count as they are counting on us.