Photo by: WOCinTech Chat / CC BY

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide has now surpassed 2 million. But this climbing statistic isn’t the only data point that matters.

Emerging evidence shows that men are significantly more likely to die from the coronavirus than women. At the same time, policies to “flatten the curve” are increasing women’s risk of gender-based violence while they “shelter-in-place” with a violent partner.

As the data-driven picture of this pandemic sharpens, we’re learning that COVID-19 means very different things for women and men.

This article is part of
Focus on: Gender Data

This focus area, powered by UN Women, highlights 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.

But the gender data needed to fully understand these differences — and take action on them — is incomplete and underutilized. Sex-disaggregated data on confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths, for example, is only available in six countries. But knowing who is at greater risk may be key to finding a cure. And the mounting calls for action from GBV practitioners across the globe point to a lack of action on the data they generate through women’s increased calls for help.

If we’re to effectively address this crisis, we need all hands on deck in the data department.

The week that coronavirus prompted cancellations of SXSW and Google I/O 2020, we released a report on how tech companies could help address humanity’s grand challenges. We advocated for tech companies to support women’s rights organizations and feminist researchers working on climate change, humanitarian crises, energy use, and health care.

Our consultations with 150-plus experts made at least one thing clear: Tech companies and feminists rarely sit at the same table. But they should. And the emerging picture on coronavirus suggests that this pandemic might be the time to start.

Tech companies and COVID-19

Digital tech is being leveraged in all kinds of ways in the COVID-19 response. Some of them are heartening. Others, which use untested algorithms and facilitate unregulated surveillance, are deeply concerning.

And the tech giants are stepping it up in terms of philanthropy. Apple, for example, donated 2 million respirator masks to U.S. and European health providers. Microsoft and launched a public-private research partnership with leading U.S. universities to explore AI applications to mitigate the pandemic. Facebook announced a $20 million fund to match private donations to the United Nations and World Health Organization COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund and the CDC Foundation, and Google will provide $800 million in ad credits and loans to help fight the outbreak.

But if the emerging data on COVID-19 tells us anything, it’s that our investments require a feminist lens.

Although a global pandemic wasn’t among the gendered grand challenges we listed in our report, our recommendations to tech companies are relevant to overcoming this current crisis, too.

Gender data for a more effective response

Social sector organizations globally are working overtime to ensure women and girls’ safety and security in the COVID-19 crisis. They’re tracking the number of women in health policy decision-making positions, organizing to support community health workers — over 70% of whom are female — and adapting to escalating demands for safe shelter and information.

Image by: Devex

And it’s possible that responsibly leveraged digital data and analytics could amplify the reach and impact of their work.

But data science isn’t cheap, and gender equality organizations are chronically underfunded. In 2019, UN Women’s global portfolio totaled less than 2% of the annual revenues of the smallest tech company to make Fortune magazine’s global 500 ranking.

At a time when so many people feel helpless, why not offer the data scientists an opportunity to make a difference on a matter of urgent global concern?

Tech companies could equip gender equality organizations with a virtually seconded data scientist and a “catalyst grant” to support the organization’s work. The data scientist could leverage existing tools, such as Facebook’s Population Density Maps. Or they could set up systems to analyze and visualize data that women’s rights advocates need to mobilize attention and resources. The pop-up repositories of global GBV reports would be a great place to start.

Data science support could also be given to ministries of health and national statistical offices to collect and report gender data not only on confirmed cases and deaths, but also on secondary impacts including on maternal health, mental health, and economic fallout.

Mounting a collective and holistic effort

Of course, tech companies will need to address valid concerns about protecting the rights of women and girls in gender data projects. One way to do this is by collaborating closely with women’s rights advocates and feminist researchers.

Another is by taking additional measures to prevent violence against women and girls online.

As the coronavirus drives people into virtual spaces, women are relying on social media and other communication platforms to connect with and care for loved ones. They’re going online to organize children’s education, order food and medicines, find answers to health questions, and keep on with their paid work. And girls and boys are in front of screens escaping boredom and attending class.

We know that gender-based violence escalates during economic and humanitarian crises. The recent rise in abusive “Zoombombing” is an indication that violence likely increases online, too. And with drastically reduced physical access to safe spaces, and survivors’ support and mental health services, the need for virtual responses is immense.

Mozilla has been placing “Messages from Firefox” about online safety during COVID that display in empty browser tabs. Efforts like these could also promote the message that although we’re in stressful times, violence is never justified.

These may not be the most intuitive ways for tech companies to contribute. But with the right feminist partners, tech companies could play a vital role not only in mitigating the immediate impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, but also in helping people recover.

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 authors

  • Julia Zulver

    Dr. Julia Zulver is a research affiliate at Ladysmith. She is also a Marie Sklodowska-Curie research fellow at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the University of Oxford (2020-2023). Her work focuses on women’s high-risk mobilization in Latin America.
  • Tara Patricia Cookson

    Dr. Tara Patricia Cookson is the director and co-founder of Ladysmith, a feminist research consultancy, and an SSHRC research fellow at the University of British Columbia. Her work focuses on women’s rights and access to social protection.
  • Lorena Fuentes

    Dr. Lorena Fuentes is the principal and co-founder of Ladysmith, a feminist research consultancy, and a lecturer in the department of International Development Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her work focuses on social norms, gender based violence, and insecurity.