Gender equality has become a crosscutting goal in development work, but achieving gender equity relies on having the right data to measure our progress toward that goal. At the rate things are moving, it will likely take another 50 years to achieve gender parity in the political sphere.
Closing the gender data gap is a critically undervalued tool in ensuring that development work geared toward more inclusive societies is real, substantive and sustainable. However, in general, this data remains mostly unmined. Nowhere is the impact of this paucity of data clearer than in the political realm.
What we do know paints a stark picture: Although the world’s population has nearly closed the gender gap in health outcomes and educational attainment, only 23 percent of the gap in the political sphere has been closed, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Index.
In 1955, women comprised just 3 percent of parliamentarians worldwide; 60 years later, that figure is nearly 23 percent. In 1999, women occupied less than 9 percent of all ministerial positions in the executive branch; today, women represent 17 percent of worldwide ministerial positions, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. However, the most readily available data on women’s political representation — when constituting the number of women occupying seats in the national legislature, leading executive ministries or serving as heads of state — does not sufficiently capture the complexity of gender equality in politics and fails to represent the full scope of the disparity.
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This complexity extends to how we actually define women’s political representation. In the political sense, the term “representation” doesn’t capture the influence of women’s political inclusion. This range is often described in political theory literature as falling into two categories: descriptive and substantive representation.
Descriptive representation describes the extent to which a representative resembles the group being represented and their needs, which may or may not be influenced by gender. Substantive representation, in contrast, denotes activities taken on behalf of the represented group: for example, when issues of priority to women are acted on or given equal weight in the political process.
This distinction is vital, as many indicators have often focused on what is easy to measure rather than on what is important to measure. However challenging this may be, it is imperative for development professionals to address the gender data gap in order to inform their work and ensure we are addressing the root causes of exclusion.
Understanding gender-based exclusion must begin with identifying the barriers to both descriptive and substantive representation. This distinction can be expanded to other areas too. When thinking about gender equality in economic issues, there is a difference between the labor participation rate of both genders that is analogous to descriptive representation and the difference in average wages analogous to substantive representation. It is only when we combine both of these types of data that we can truly understand the progress — or lack thereof — of our efforts.
In a first attempt at bringing together both these types of data, the Center for Applied Learning and Global Initiatives, in conjunction with Women’s Democracy Network, conducted a pilot study of women’s political leadership in 29 African countries: The Women’s Leadership Index. Using a composite of four indicators, the index captures both descriptive and substantive representation within the legislative and executive branches of national government with two indicators representing completely new data. The results provide a more nuanced view of women’s representation and influence and their correlation, enabling us to more accurately define “women’s political leadership.”
One of the chief benefits of having data that speaks to both the descriptive and substantive sides of representation is the ability to explore the relationship between these indicators on women’s leadership. For instance, the study found a positive relationship between the percentage of women who lead ministries and the percentage of the national budget managed by women.
Beyond a snapshot of the performance of individual countries and the relationship between the data, this data can also enable the exploration of the role of other factors relevant to supporting women’s political leadership. For example, countries studied in the index that are more democratic tended to perform better on executive influence, while less democratic countries tended to perform better on legislative influence. In addition, the index validated findings that suggest that the use of certain gender quotas can increase women’s political leadership.
However, the index also revealed that countries that did not utilize certain types of quota actually tended to rank higher on the two indicators related to executive leadership. Data alone does not tell the whole story and ensuring that it is triangulated with other data can help shed light on what are the causes of exclusion as well as offer ideas about solutions.
Closing the gender data gap should be a top priority for development practitioners in order to provide a vital foundation from which to design and support successful interventions to finally achieve gender equality and to fully harness the potential of women and girls. While we don’t want to wait 50 more years for political gender parity, we also want to ensure that when that glass ceiling is broken it is truly shattered, and does not reflect an illusion of equality because we have been measuring the wrong things all along.
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