In a speech on September 21 at “We The Future: Accelerating Sustainable Development Solutions,” an event organized by the Skoll Foundation, TED, and the United Nations Foundation as part of Global Goals Week, Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan spoke directly to women and girls around the world. “You are not invisible. You are not just a number on a spreadsheet,” she said. Queen Rania’s words reflect a shift in focus among data enthusiasts, a shift that was seen across events during the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Where previous discussions centered on the data revolution and the high promise of data for development, at this year’s UNGA, speakers sought to humanize data, reminding us that behind every data point is a person with a unique and powerful story.
This led me to ask: How do we celebrate the promise of data when it fails to capture the experience of each person? How can we improve data so that the full lives of all people are reflected, even when we are speaking about hundreds, thousands, or millions of people?
The answer is that gender data is key for making women’s stories actionable for policymakers. The availability of accurate, timely, and disaggregated data ensures that policymakers have the information they need to design policies and programs to improve people’s lives. Though one person’s story won’t lead to broad policy change, these stories can inspire efforts to create data systems capable of capturing women’s full experiences which will result in change.
This was evident at a Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data’s UNGA side-event, where Commissioner Yeama Thompson of Sierra Leone spoke about the individual women behind the data on the high Ebola death toll in her country. Women and girls risked contracting the deadly illness as they cared for dying family members, and data was key to addressing the crisis. Disaggregated, geo-coded data illustrated both the location of Ebola outbreaks and the disproportionate burden on women. This allowed Sierra Leonean policymakers to design tailored interventions, ultimately curtailing outbreaks and saving the lives of women across the country.
At that same event, I had the opportunity to talk about the experience of women in Uruguay, who, like so many women around the world, want to participate productively in the economy but face a challenge because unpaid work takes up much of their time. Like in Sierra Leone, data was key to addressing this challenge. The National Statistics Office collected sex-disaggregated time use data to explore whether there was gender inequity in time spent on unpaid care work. The data revealed that while the proportion of time spent on unpaid work by men increased over a five-year period, women continued to spend a much greater percentage of their time on this work.
Armed with this information, civil society and academia advocated for their government to develop a new National Care Policy, which includes care for preschool children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, and has the potential to improve the productivity and quality of life for real women’s lives.
These stories demonstrate how good policy decisions can result when informed by good gender data. Data2X and our partners are working toward that goal – to make sure more and better gender data exists, and to link that data to policy. We aim to fill data gaps and support advocacy for gender data, to ensure policymakers have the information they need to improve women’s empowerment and work toward gender equality.
Individual stories remind us that we cannot forget the individuals behind the data. They also reaffirm that data is a crucial tool to facilitate policy impact. So what comes next?
First, the development community needs to recommit to collect more and better gender data. Each time we hear a powerful story about a woman’s struggles, we should also ask: How many women have similar experiences? Where are these women located and what might be other factors influencing their lives? This way, we can build data systems that capture women’s realities.
Second, we need to arm policymakers with the information they need to design programs that are responsive to the challenges facing women around the world. Data is what gives stories true power to shape policies and make change.
And third, we need to identify more stories that show how gender data can lead to real impact in people’s lives. That’s why we will be issuing a public call for gender data impact stories. We are seeking stories that explore the connection between data and policy, and to demonstrate the potential that accurate, unbiased data – used wisely – can have to improve women’s lives.