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Gender Equality

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Measuring What Matters on Gender Equality

Alison Holder

07 Sep 2018

By Alison Holder, Director of Equal Measures 2030 | 7 September 2018

“Never before has gender equality played such a pertinent role in the global policy agenda.”

Alison Holder is director of Equal Measures 2030, a global partnership focused on data, gender equality and the SDGs. Here she discusses the importance of accessible gender equality data as a starting point for creating change and the role this information can play in eradicating gender inequality overall. Sherah Beckley, Editor Thomson Reuters Sustainability


Gender equality is on the public agenda across the world, as we saw with the speed and fervour of how movements such as #NiUnaMenos, #BalanceTonPorc and #MeToo grew.  In my experience, gender equality is also on the agenda in politics. It was a high priority, for example, for the “G7” most powerful countries when they met in June this year. Gender equality is also a big topic in Boardrooms, as I saw at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.

But how do we know if the discourse on gender equality is translating into real action?  How will we know how far we’ve come and how far we have to go on gender equality unless we’re actually tracking progress in every country?

Over the past year I’ve regularly spoken to government officials, gender equality advocates and business leaders from all over the world about data and gender equality.  When we meet, I like to ask:

what is the statistic that really made you stop in your tracks?

Everybody’s answer is different.  Some focus on facts that tell us the scale of the challenge ahead like how more than one in five girls globally is married before the age of 18, or only 6% of political leaders are women.

Others are inspired by facts that show the potential for, and power of, change. Two examples of this are that women dying in childbirth and pregnancy (maternal mortality ratio) fell by 44% globally in just 15 years,  or that one additional school year can increase a woman’s earnings by 10 – 20%.

Three things are clear to me when I have these conversations:

One is that measuring gender equality is multi-dimensional, with a wide range of issues that must be considered if we are to evaluate improvement for girls and women.

Two, when used effectively, data can be an important tool to make people stop and take notice of an issue that might have otherwise remained hidden or ignored.

Three, and most important, is that facts don’t and should not speak for themselves. They’re only the starting point.

The power of data to change hearts and minds will only be realised when that data are in the hands of those who can really create change:  girls’ and women’s movements and advocates, backed by champions from government, business, the media, religious communities and others who have the power to make a difference. Simply put, we must ensure that girls and women are not the “subjects” of data but in the driving seat.  Data that is about girls and women but also by and for girls and women.

I travelled to Indonesia to see the work being done by KAPAL Perempuan who are using data to drive change on gender equality. KAPAL Perempuan supports women to collect data about their communities, and then to use that data to ensure that things get better for girls and women in their communities.  Women I met in one of the poorest urban slums in the capital city of Jakarta said that because of the data they collected, they could advocate for better access for government services, such as national health insurance cards or education-related subsidies.

For KAPAL Perempuan, and for the girls and women in the communities they work in, data becomes instrumental to drive progress on gender equality and to hold governments accountable for really delivering on their promises.

But how do we ensure that gender equality data are used not just to drive change within certain communities but also at the global level?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), signed by 193 countries, present both a fundamental opportunity and a profound challenge. Never before has gender equality played such a pertinent role in the global policy agenda.

The comprehensive nature of the SDGs, however, also presents data challenges.  We’re a fifth of the way through the SDGs and yet out of 232 official indicators that will be used by the United Nations to monitor progress towards the goals, only 15 indicators both refer explicitly to girls or women or specific disaggregation by sex and are generally available and well-defined enough to measure.

What this means is that we do not have the right data to track some key issues in the SDGs, hampering our ability to understand today’s gender differences and the direction of travel for the well-being of girls and women.

So how do we overcome these challenges to ensure we’re headed in the right direction?

Governments must invest in filling data gaps that are hampering our ability to measure progress, particularly for girls and women.

It is also about ensuring that the data we do have – like the facts that captured the attention of the people I’ve spoken to – are accessible and compelling, so that gender equality advocates and champions can grasp them and shout about them from the rooftops.

It’s also about measuring gender equality in all its complexity and breadth, across all of the SDGs, including issues such as clean fuel, climate change and tax and public finance that aren’t often considered gender issues.

Lastly, it’s also about resisting the temptation to declare one country “good” on gender equality and another “bad”, and instead take lessons from the areas of good practice that can be found in nearly all countries and push harder for progress where countries are lagging.

It’s in our best interest to ensure we’re all collectively working towards the same goal: eradicating gender inequality by 2030.

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