Experts call for 'deeper data' on women's realities at UN World Data Forum

A scene from the Jordanian Women’s Union center at the Hitteen Palestinian refugee camp. Photo: Christopher Herwig / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — Just 28% of the science and engineering workforce globally are female, while 20% of ICT professionals are female. This is according to the seventh edition of The World's Women, which provides a snapshot of the latest data on gender equality worldwide.

As part of World Statistics Day on Oct. 20, the report was launched at the 2020 U.N. World Data Forum, providing a snapshot of the latest data on gender equality worldwide.

Provided for the first time in an interactive format, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs is enabling users to engage with this latest gender data geographically to go beyond global insights to regional stories. The data shows where progress has been achieved since the sixth edition in 2015. Education, early marriage, childbearing age, and maternal health are areas with signs of improvement.

“Progress has stagnated in other areas, however,” Liu Zhenmin, under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs at UN DESA, told media in launching the report. “These include women’s labor force participation and unequal distribution of unpaid domestic case work, harming women’s economic potential.”

Even for areas where progress has been made, Zhenmin warned that the COVID-19 pandemic “threatens to reduce hard-won gains,” with women more likely to face economic and social restrictions in addition to being at the frontline of workforces being exposed directly to the virus.

A deep dive shows diversity

Equal representation in government and in managerial roles are ways gender equality can be built. Since 1995, female representation in national parliaments has increased from 11% to 25% according to the UN DESA report. As managers, women account for 28% of the workforce, up from 25% in 1995. And as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies they now account for 7%, up from zero.

“Investing in deeper data on women’s realities is a smart, long-term investment to enable effective decision-making.”

— Mark Suzman, CEO, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Diving deeper into the data shows regions and countries that are punching above their weight in this area. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 32% of national parliamentarians are female with this region home to five out of 10 countries with the highest proportion of women in national parliament — including Mexico, which has achieved gender equality in both chambers of its parliament.

Data on violence against women, which is growing as an area of concern in the social response to COVID-19, reveals the lack of progress that can emerge through a deep dive. Globally, the data shows that 18% of women have experienced intimate partner violence — physical and sexual — in the past year. But that number differs between regions and countries, with between 2% and 46% of women suffering from this form of violence depending on where in the world they live.

Focusing on Khazakstan, national figures show that 5% of women experiences intimate partner physical and sexual violence. But data also reveals that women experience more frequent and severe violence. In the country, 57% of these women report frequent violence with kicking and punching common. And they experience it in silence: 51% have not discussed their experience of violence with anyone.

Francesca Grum, chief of the social and gender statistics section with UN DESA, said that in “unpacking the data and looking at multiple indicators,” the stories start to emerge. But while this data provides more insight, it is just the start.

“It is quite challenging, from a statistical point of view, to capture data that tells us the complete story behind the experience of women who are abused,” she said.

In other areas of data, including labor force participation, Grum found that progress was stalling.

“Our assessment shows there has been a stagnation, and this is probably due to a combination of multiple factors including discriminatory social norms, unequal legal rights, and also unequal distribution of unpaid care work that somehow combined restrains women from their full economic potential,” she explained.

Global data shows that 47% of working age women participate in the workforce — with that figure below 30% in Southern Asia, Western Asia, and Northern Africa. Women continue to spend more than double the time men do on unpaid work, and lower paid occupations continue to be dominated by women — as are personal care and health occupations, which put women on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19.

Change requires investment

Despite this new data and the growing recognition that disaggregated data — including gender disaggregated data — enables better policy decisions supporting vulnerable communities, funding data collection remains a challenge. At the opening session of the World Data Forum on Oct. 19, speakers called for greater investment.

Alain Berset, federal counselor with the Federal Department of Home Affairs in Switzerland, reminded the audience that “only those who are counted count in political decisions.”

“There has never been more data than today,” he said. “However it is only useful if we are able to use it to close known data gaps. For example, we still have a gender data gap. Important datasets about women are missing or incomplete. If these gaps remain, we might overlook what consequences a decision may have for vulnerable parts of the population. We need to close those gaps. We need the resources to build up and maintain a globally harmonized statistical system.”

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Mark Suzman, CEO at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was more blunt in his call for action, saying that the prioritization and funding of more “gender intentional measurement” was necessary — especially in the economic and social recovery from COVID-19.

“Investing in deeper data on women’s realities is a smart, long-term investment to enable effective decision-making,” he said.

Data2X is among the organizations continuing to push for greater investment to better understand the gaps that exist for women and girls, with a recent initiative showing how investment in gender data can link to objectives supporting women. This focus is on the objectives of six action coalitions supporting the Generation Equality Forum.

“The purpose of these action coalitions is to deliver concrete and game-changing results on the issues,” Sarah Boyd, director of global advocacy with Data2X, told Devex. “And we simply won’t know whether we have made progress, without the data.”

Leading up to the World Data Forum, Data2X Executive Director Emily Courey Pryor told Devex investment in gender data has varied widely across the development arena.  

“Over the past two years, there has been widespread agreement about the importance of gender data within sustainable development efforts. We have seen this especially among gender-focused civil society organizations who might not have considered the data angle in their work previously,” she said.

“However, financing for development data overall continues to be a great need, and financing for gender data specifically.”

While COVID-19 upended plans for an in-person gathering of data providers, users, and policy makers, conversations about data funding did continue virtually — with the hope that these discussions through the Bern Network on Financing Data for Development will lead to greater funding that closes a range of data gaps, including those related to gender.

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

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.