There’s a “Gender Data Gap” that’s standing in the way of the Sustainable Development Goals

There is a persistent problem problem in international development: the data just aren’t that good. This is particularly true with data about women and girls in the developing world. And without good data, we don’t know what we don’t know; the international community, national governments, local groups and and international NGOs are less able to implement effective strategies to promote women’s health, education and economic development.

In recent years there has been a growing awareness about the so-called Gender Data gap. This vide, from Data2X, describes the relationship between data and gender equality.

Today, at the Women Deliver Conference underway in Copenhagen, the global effort to improve data collection got a big boost. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $80 million to support better data collection, particularly on the amount of unpaid work undertaken by women in the home and gender based violence. Much of the funding will go through UN Women and support national statistics offices in the developing world.

From the Guardian.

[Melinda] Gates said her focus would be on improving household surveys. A report last year by the Overseas Development Institute found that as many as 350 million people may not be included in these surveys. Women are likely to be disproportionately affected.

Information collected in household surveys usually centres on men’s financial contribution, with little or no mention about the contribution women make in paid and unpaid work.

Speaking to the Guardian after the announcement, Gates said: “When you go into households and ask who is earning the money, as soon as you find out it’s the man, you go down one track. You don’t even follow up with the question, ‘Does anyone else here earn money?’ Most women earn money. So we will work on the surveys themselves.”

The Gates’ announcement is part of a larger collection of policy commitments announced by a diverse group of national governments, international organizations and philanthropies to “increase our focus and investments towards closing the core gender data challenges.” The group, which includes the World Bank, the United Nations Foundation, Data2x, the Hewlett Foundation and the governments of the USA, Canada and Australia, explicitely identifies closing the gender data gap as a means to accelerate progress on the new Sustainable Development Goals.

Action for Gender Data partners
Action for Gender Data partners

So far, the debate about data quality and the broader implications of gender data inequality has been the solely the remit of the international development community.  The cause of closing the gender data gap is not something that has not penetrated more mainstream foreign policy circles. That may soon change. For one, this big investment by the Gates Foundation and policy commitments by several leading foreign aid donors might focus broader attention on the issue. Also, one Hillary Clinton is a known champion of this case. She launched Data2X in as Secretary of State back in 2012.

Either way, the announcements made in Copenhagen today have the potential to remedy a key technical obstacle that is standing in the way of achieving key parts of the Sustainable Development Goals agenda. That’s progress.


PODCAST Throwback: How good are the data that drives international development policies? It turns out, not that great. This week’s episode comes in two parts. In part 1, Mark speaks with Morten Jerven, author of “Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about it?” who offers an excellent overview of the situation. Next, Mark speaks with one person who is actively trying to solve this problem in one discreet way. Mayra Buvinic is a senior fellow with the United Nations Foundation who helped start Data2X, which is a collaboration that seeks to improve the quality of data and statistics about women and girls in the developing world.  

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