• Opinion
  • October 7, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 0

To close the gender gap, we first need to properly measure it

Opinion: The system is flawed. Data is part of the solution

This opinion article was written by Jessica Roland, Senior Associate for Policy and Advocacy at Women Deliver. This article was chosen as one of the finalists in Apolitical’s women in government writing competition.


Women as political leaders and decision-makers at all levels are critical to advancing global economic, political and social progress.

Countries with a greater proportion of women as top decision-makers in legislatures have lower levels of income inequality. Peace agreements are 35% more likely to last at least 15 years if women leaders are engaged in their creation and execution.

Women’s leadership within households, including decision-making over land and household income, improves healthcare and education access for their families. Despite this evidence, only 24% of members of parliaments globally are currently women.

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So why aren’t there more women political leaders?

One issue is the lack of adequate data on women’s inclusion, participation, and political leadership on all levels. Data is key to inclusive policy, program, and norm change.

This lack of data challenges the international community’s ability — globally and locally — to address individual, institutional, and socio-cultural barriers and as a result, the ability to achieve progress on these issues.

What data are we missing?

To understand the data gap, we have to examine what limited data we have or are attempting to gather.

Indicator 5.5.1 of Sustainable Development Goal 5 on Gender Equality aims to measure the proportion of seats held by women in national parliamentary seats and ministerial positions.

These global statistics are already widely available and reported and while this is an important step forward, the international community lacks data on how those women gained political office — an information gap that prevents aspiring women leaders from learning from each other.

So what are some of the essential data points we need?

1. Voter data

Let’s start by examining the gaps found around voting.

Voter registration and participation provides the widest possible indication of political participation for the average female citizen in a country. However, not all current voter registration and voter data is gender-disaggregated.

This is problematic because, without this data, governments cannot track how women engage within the voting process. For example, a lack of gender-disaggregated data results in governments’ inability to identify which areas or specific populations of the country women are not registering or voting. Gender-disaggregated data are data disaggregated by gender identity, sexual orientation, age, geographic location, ethnicity, ability, indigeneity, class and caste to reflect the lived realities and needs of all individuals.

There is very little data on women’s leadership at the local level. And for many countries, it does not exist at all

Gender-disaggregated data engages all stakeholders, not just women, to capture the intersecting realities of girls and women across settings and integrates gender perspectives into mainstream indicators and further data collection efforts.

Without gender-disaggregated data, efforts to perform targeted citizen voter education campaigns to be more inclusive and engage more citizens in the democratic process are ultimately impeded.

Governments need their citizens to have confidence in the democratic system in order to effectively govern the country. Without women’s participation as voters, the legitimacy of the election can be called into question. Ultimately, governments should care about this lack of data because without improving diverse citizen engagement, the country will suffer from a lack of perspective and solutions that could be offered to solve critical problems.

2. Local data

There is very little data on women’s leadership at the local level. And for many countries, it does not exist at all.

For example, there is no global database of current mayors disaggregated by sex. There is also no data on the share of women in leadership in grassroots political organisations.

While UN Women is leading global efforts to develop a single, global measure to measure elected positions withinlocal government, there are still measurement challenges. The most urgent include the lack of electronic and/or centralised data and the lack of gender-disaggregated data within electoral records.

The bottom line is: we need the numbers

Because of this lack of data, current and aspiring women leaders are deprived of the opportunity to use this information as a tool to build coalitions, networks or mentorship opportunities. These women could also use this data to analyse pathways that women from different regions and contexts have taken to higher-levels of leadership.

Having gender-disaggregated data will ultimately transform the makeup of local politics and decision-making. The current status quo impedes women’s leadership and the world’s overall efforts in monitoring progress towards gender equality.

3. Systemic data

Data on the number of women in politics is necessary, but it’s not enough to paint the full picture of women’s political participation.

There are also systemic barriers that impact all politically active women that the international community must collect and analyse, which include:

  • Data on violence against women in politics, including within political parties, parliaments and within the online space;
  • Data on male engagement in improving women’s political participation; and
  • Intersectional data around women in politics, that recognises identities and social positions, such as ethnicity, religious beliefs, age, sexual orientation and socio-economic background.

All of these data pieces are instrumental in understanding how barriers might impede or impact women’s leadership on all levels. We need to analyse and understand the power imbalance between the genders, which is rooted within all three of these data points.

The vital advocacy and policy solutions that the gender equality movement needs are all hindered by this overall lack of data. Data can be used to effectively track the progress made towards advancing women’s political participation, while also highlighting barriers to their success as leaders.

Data can also further spur investment in girls and women and bring greater visibility to their needs and efforts. Citizens, governments, and the international community need to be systematically collecting data around women’s political participation. The bottom line is: we need the numbers. — Jessica Roland

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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