Women in industry – why we need more gender-sensitive statistics

By Jenny Larsen, United Nations Industrial Development Organisation

Since COVID-19 emerged in late 2019, scientists have been poring over the data to understand better how the virus behaves and how to fight it. But studies show that many trials fail to take the sex of participants into account – meaning eagerly awaited vaccines or treatments could be less effective in the female population. Data from Global Health 50/50 show that as of December 2020 only 58 percent of COVID-19 cases reported by 186 countries had been disaggregated by sex, making it much harder to assess the impact of the virus across populations. 

From domestic violence to unpaid care work, these omissions reflect a much wider, longstanding data bias that underreports or even misreports the life experiences of women and girls, in an era when our lives are increasingly dominated by an ocean of data. In her recent book, Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez writes that we have unconsciously created the world as male: “Women are being left out of numbers, data, the way in which we allocate our resources, the way in which we design safety for cars, the way in which we design medicine.”

The consequences are far-reaching: without reliable sex and gender-disaggregated data and gender statistics, decisions taken by policymakers, scientists or researchers, be it about health, the economy or elsewhere, risk leaving women behind and widening inequalities. 

“We need to use existing statistics in a smarter way, linking them to other data sources such as trade information, employment records and business registries.” #DevMatters

Out for the count

Take the beleaguered but crucial manufacturing sector, where employment is dominated by men. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), women make up around 37 percent of manufacturing workers, but this statistic is based on the relatively small number of countries that report complete industrial employment data by gender. The International Labour Organization (ILO) provides statistics on the number of women in manufacturing as a share of female employment, and on employment by gender, status and economic activity. But although improving, the scope of available information remains patchy. For example, we don’t have enough data on whether women occupy frontline or administrative posts, or whether they hold decision-making and managerial positions. 

UNIDO gathers national data on women employed in different manufacturing sectors, and provides information at more detailed subsector level. But once again, many countries don’t report, and what information is supplied can be incomplete or infrequent. Nor do we have sufficient information on whether women are being paid the same as men for the same work in particular industries and subsectors. Overall, data on earnings and conditions in the formal sector are irregular, and international comparison remains difficult: according to UN Women, only 15 percent of countries have provided data since 2010. Reporting on the informal economy however, has improved in the past five years, with over 100 countries now providing information. Yet many countries lack the capacity and resources to produce data on a gender-disaggregated basis, and large gaps remain at the low-tech end of the spectrum, where most women are employed.

Furthermore, a recent UNIDO report shows how we lack information about survival rates for female-run businesses, about their labour productivity and their capacity to diversify production, compared to businesses run by men. Data collection tends to miss out micro enterprises, which are often run by women. These gaps mean we don’t have a full picture of the barriers to getting more women into manufacturing jobs, while policy options to promote equal opportunities for men and women remain limited.

Preparing for the new normal

Access to higher-skilled, better-paid manufacturing jobs would allow women to share more equally the benefits of industrialisation and raise their status at home and in the community, while bringing largely untapped skills source into industry. Better work for women is also a key aim of Women 20 (W20), an official engagement group of the G20 that forms policy to advance gender equality within the G20 negotiations. Under the current Italian presidency, it aims to step up efforts to achieve and surpass a 25 percent target rise in women’s labour market participation by 2025 from 2012 levels. Agreed at the 2014 G20 summit in Brisbane, the initiative emphasises the quality of work as much as the quantity.

“Data collection tends to miss out micro enterprises, which are often run by women. These gaps mean we don’t have a full picture of the barriers to getting more women into manufacturing jobs.” #DevMatters

Making progress on these aims is all the more pressing as women are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis, losing their jobs and businesses at a greater rate than men. According to a UN Women survey conducted in the first half of 2020 in Europe and Central Asia, a quarter of self-employed women had lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic compared to a fifth of men. Overall, women’s employment is 19 percent more at risk than that of men – largely because women are overrepresented in low-paid, low-skilled jobs in struggling sectors such as textiles and garments, and in part-time or temporary jobs that are often the first to be cut. In 26 countries out of 33 where data are available, women are more likely to hold vulnerable jobs in manufacturing. They are also disproportionately represented in the informal sector, where employment is less secure and offers fewer social protection. 

Millions of women may therefore be forced to seek new forms of employment in higher-skilled jobs that are more resilient in the new employment landscape. This means they will need to acquire skills and training in areas that are relevant in the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution. But new skills alone will not be enough. Even where the education and skills gap has narrowed in recent years, with more women trained in scientific and technical subjects, this has not always translated into better jobs. As countries industrialise, women have tended to remain in low-skilled positions. Policies need to take account of culture and societal norms to ensure that more women can access higher-level, better-paid jobs, or develop their own businesses. 

Strength in numbers

To drive these changes, we need more gender-disaggregated statistics that provide a reliable picture of where women and men work, what their paid and unpaid contributions are, and the barriers they face. Beyond that, we need to use existing statistics in a smarter way, linking them to other data sources such as trade information, employment records and business registries that would allow us to monitor the employment and entrepreneurial status of women at individual company level. 

The recent UNIDO report shows what can be achieved when applying a gender dimension to data, including a so-called index of dissimilarity to show the level of female employment across sub-sectors. But many developing countries still lack the resources and capacity to produce a steady stream of consistent and timely statistics that are internationally comparable. The financial and logistical constraints imposed by the current crisis will intensify these challenges, making it even harder to monitor its impact on women, or to implement the right policies for a fair recovery. More financial support is needed at national and international level to close funding gaps that prevent countries from gathering and analysing such data, so that we can look ahead to a recovery from the pandemic where everyone counts.