Male and female hands give the thumbs up sign. Photo by: European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — In today’s development thinking, gender plays an key role — including in achieving the outcomes of the Sustainable Development Goals. But in progressing the SDG gender agenda, how do you create a solid set of data and monitor progress?

The SDG Gender Index, released by Equal Measures 2030 to coincide with a meeting in Canada of female foreign ministers, produces the starting base through an analysis and assessment of more than 250 data points related to 12 of the 17 SDGs with clear connections to gender equality.

The first iteration of the index is focused only on Colombia, El Salvador, India, Indonesia, Kenya, and Senegal. These six countries are home to 22 percent of the world’s population of women and girls and constitute an important starting point to understanding the data challenges in measuring and monitoring progress on gender equality.

The index measures on a scale of 100, levels of education, health, economic empowerment, climate change, public finance, and political representation for the 12 goals assessed.

From 2019, the index will incorporate as many countries as possible to provide a comprehensive measurement of progress toward gender targets in the SDGs by 2030.

It is a snapshot of what can be achieved and what should be done to create a baseline that will help monitor countries progress. In order to deliver an updated index in 2019, discussions are being had on data quality and detail required to ensure it is an important source of information on gender progress. The goal is to produce an information and advocacy tool that can help governments understand where they can improve policies and services for greater impact on the lives of women and girls.

“We’re in the process of better understanding the scope of the challenges — this report focuses on baselines from which to measure progress,” Alison Holder, EM2030 executive director, explained to Devex.

EM2030 is a partnership of civil society and private sector organizations with gender equality advocacy an important part of their agenda — including the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, or FEMNET, Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women, or ARROW, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Data2X, the International Women’s Health Coalition and Plan International.

Data accuracy and quality

In developing the first iteration of the Index, EM2030 was required to identify gender targets within the SDGs that were measurable and had data sources.

For consistency, open data from sources such as the World Bank, World Health Organization and United Nations were used where possible. But even in those cases, there were issues with the timeliness of data. For some indicators,10 year-old data had to be used as the base.

They are working to address that challenge, in order to ensure progress can be tracked across time.

“There are only several cases out of 250+ data points in the pilot, so out-of-date indicators were not a major problem for the six countries,” Holder said. “But it is expected to become more problematic when countries that haven’t conducted a recent census are included in the index. We are weighing the different options for how to address the lack of timely data, which could include modeling and simulation techniques.”

With open data sources playing an important role in the index, adding value and improving the quality of this data will also improve results — an important element in the work of EM2030 in educating on data.

“Currently, the index does this in several ways,” Holder explained. “We have generated gender ratios in relation to participation in the informal economy and the so-called NEET [not in education, not in employment/training] indicator which helps to reveal huge gender differences in the labor market. We have also used existing data on legal and policy frameworks to generate new summary measures of progress.”

EM2030 is exploring further options for data improvement, including using other potential indicators and developing data collaborations with cross-national and national data producers to look at existing data through a gender lens.

But to make the index successful, EM2030 will be looking to expand the scope of data sources for the best quality data available.

“Some of the updated data will come about through increased efforts by national ministries and statistical authorities with the support of the U.N. and a wide range of partners,” Holder said. “Some will come through technological innovations and other data sources generated by civil society, the private sector, and others.”

Holder is aware that gaps in the data will remain — predictive analysis or data modelling to fill the gaps may suit some data points. By highlighting the gaps, they hope to build awareness of the need for strong data.

“We need to maintain the pressure to improve gender data by showcasing and building consensus around existing good practices in countries and regions,” Holder said

Looking below national data

A central principle of the SDG framework is to measure progress among disadvantaged, subpopulations in order to better inform national policies to address these inequalities. Feedback from the index shows that this is an area advocates are keen to see expanded.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the “Regional Program of Technical Assistance for Improving the Surveys of Living Conditions Project” has been doing this for some time, already showing its value. Holder is hopeful this initiative can build to the global level of data collection.

“It’s important to consider the cross-section of multiple disadvantages,” she said. “How is life different for a rural girl or woman compared to those who live in urban areas and other characteristics, such as wealth and disability? This will help to identify the real drivers and target populations for needed interventions.”


Understanding impact is an important step in improved policies and services for women and girls. Holder is hoping this first iteration of the index can help the development sector understand the value-add of a cross-cutting approach to the SDGs in showing the breadth of gender issues.

It also highlights that regardless of policy drivers and a focus on gender, each country has areas they can improve.

“It is important to see ... the whole picture and how legal frameworks, social norms, and social institutions play a role in defining it,” Holder said.

Already, local and national girls’ and women’s rights organizations within focal countries can see the impact data can have in their advocacy and programs. Alongside ARROW and FEMNET and through a network of core partners, EM2030 aims to build political will and influence policy.

“Through the use of data and evidence-based tools, Equal Measures 2030 further supports our national partners and their networks to better influence decision-makers to ensure the right laws, policies, and budget allocations are put in place to address key gender equality issues,” Holder said.

The 2019 release

The release of the 2019 index aims to be a truly international affair with more data informing more countries on how they are performing on gender-related policies and actions.

Following that release, the index will be updated every two years with the aim of informing countries on how they are progressing and how policy decisions are making an impact.

But there is also the need to look at other indicators that can inform gender equality — work EM2030 will continue to progress.

“There is so much activity out there — especially in nontraditional areas of gender policy like energy, environment, trade, tax, and fiscal policy,” Holder said.

“We hope to capture more in these areas and work together with the relevant constituencies toward strengthening measurement approaches and ensuring the use of data in national and global advocacy.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.