• Opinion
  • November 21, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 3

Want to communicate data better? Try the power of storytelling

Opinion: Qualitative data is crucial to understanding why there aren't more women in politics

Brooke López and Adrianna Maberry are co-founders of the Lone Star Parity Project, a nonpartisan publication and research site dedicated to women in Texas politics.


In the era of #MeToo, we are recognising the ever-reaching tentacles of the insidious patriarchal foundations in nearly every aspect of our societies.

Science and data do not escape this all-encompassing realm of stark gender norms. Traditional science has relied heavily on quantitative data, reducing illustrative attributes to rigid and sterile numbers. In contrast, qualitative data has by and large been minimised in research, only utilised within social sciences like anthropology, geography, and psychology. It is no coincidence that these fields are dominated by women.

All of this is not to say quantitative data is not necessary, but to understand the overvaluation we have placed on numbers — at the expense of the story behind them. Blind faith in quantitative data leads to issues like racist computer algorithms and the oversimplification of complex systems. Qualitative data can weave subtleties and perspective into quantitative data.

Qualitative data can weave subtleties and perspective into quantitative data

Politics also subscribes to this same devaluation of femininity. Lone Star Parity Project’s mission is to dig deep into the data, where past analysis hasn’t gone, and understand why women are not being elected at the same rates as men. Through the lens of Lone Star Parity Project, we combine and equally value qualitative storytelling (LSPP Features) and quantitative localised data (LSPP Research) to answer fundamental questions about women in Texas politics.

Levelling the playing field

Women make up 51% of the United States population but serve in just 20% of elected offices across federal, state and local levels of government. When women are a minority in elected office, we are stripped of our right to voice our thoughts on crucial legislation. It is essential that women have a fair playing field to advocate for their views.

Women make up 51% of the United States population but serve in just 20% of elected offices across federal, state and local levels of government

The cross-section of the female experience is brilliant with multiplicity, but bounded and undervalued —  especially in the case of minority women. We tend to be limited to stereotypical “women’s issues” on a legislative platform, like women’s health and education reform, rather than being able to apply the complex perspectives that women can bring to every single policy issue.

Women have served in elected office at a stagnant national average of 20% since 1992, the first “Year of the Woman,” when the number of women running for political office spiked. 2018 has also seen a spike, with more women running for office in one election cycle than ever before.

Interventions that focus on electing women are rarely expanded beyond the federal level.  Programs don’t cater their tactics to unique regions or even states, but instead, introduce nationwide practices to get more women elected. An updated approach that tackles the obstacles preventing women candidates from running and winning on a localised level is needed.

Much of this is due to our fragmented political system. It is easy to obtain federal and state data, but nearly impossible to find data on counties, regions, school boards, justices, local activists and precinct organisers without hours of work.

Better storytelling

Our solution is expansive, but simple. We gather the stories of those who are currently involved in the Texas realm of politics and provide insight that illustrates the rich fabric of women’s experiences. Simultaneously, we aggregate local-level data to inform a historical, statewide dataset.

We’ve uncovered noteworthy qualitative advice from experienced women in the field — information that can’t be extracted from number-crunching alone. The information we sought about the day-to-day campaign operations were gently intertwined into each individual candidate’s story. For example: when a woman runs for office in El Paso, Texas, her advice for successful campaigns, which is based in bilingual grassroots outreach, can look drastically different from the advice we hear out of Dallas, Texas, which is generally based in big-picture community outreach.

This combination of storytelling and data has the potential to have a powerful impact on the political sphere

This combination of storytelling and data has the potential to have a powerful impact on the political sphere in the Lone Star State. The power of grassroots organising is common knowledge in politics, but is not applied to understanding the barriers women in the field face.

It is essential that communities begin taking localised approaches to getting more women elected. To do that, we have to harness the qualitative advice from women on the ground. When we humanise our candidates, we humanise their message.

Big data does not always produce better outcomes, but it does reinforce underlying assumptions. By taking a grassroots approach to data collection, we humanise it.

And by humanising it, we find commonalities between communities where we may have seen stark differences. We see differences where there may have been a broad stroke. Multi-scalar approaches like these projects (here and here) are beginning to incorporate individual details on a large scale. Small-scale qualitative data has value. Individual stories have value.

Our approach in research mimics our search for parity in politics: we recognise that differences in substance always elevate the conversation. We confront the schism of gender in nearly every facet we encounter, including something as methodical as data.

Without the value of mixed strategy, men and women, quantitative analysis and qualitative data, we lose our full brilliance and potential. Better solutions start with equality. —Brooke López and Adrianna Maberry

(Picture credit: Pixabay)

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