Women hold a cardboard sign in Nepal. Can gender equality be achieved with data? Photo by: Stephan Bachenheimer / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Once relegated to fringe conversations, gender data saw its name printed on agendas at Women Deliver 2016 and its quantitative and qualitative potential uttered aloud and debated by small startups and donors alike.

In Copenhagen, Melinda Gates sent gender data’s popularity soaring when she announced that half of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $80 million gender equality commitment would go toward closing the gender data gap. Plan International CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen added to the momentum by presenting a new partnership — in the form of a gender data SDG tracker — to ensure decision-makers are held accountable on promises to achieve equality for girls and women. McKinsey & Co., meanwhile, shared a data-heavy follow-up to its Power of Parity report to show where resources need to be focused in order for women to reach their economic potential. And most recently, Jordan’s Queen Rania explained to TIME why good gender data is necessary for helping female refugees.

The collection of sex-disaggregated data is approaching the same game changing, attention-grabbing pinnacle that women’s economic empowerment reached years ago. An issue that has for years suffered from a distinct “lack of cool” now finds itself on the main stage; gender data, it seems, has finally elbowed its way in with the popular crowd.

Most professionals working in the development community are familiar with the battle cry of women’s economic empowerment: “Investing in women is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.” Now, Emily Courey Pryor, senior director of the United Nations Foundation’s  Data2X initiative — named for the power women have to multiply progress in their societies — has identified the marching orders when it comes to data: “There’s no gender equality without data equality.”

Just as achieving women’s economic empowerment is not a quick fix, collecting data to count missing women and girls and close a massive gender data gap will also take sound public policies, a holistic approach and long-term commitment from all development actors. In a new era of high-level advocates, pledged millions and trending hashtags on Twitter, those who have been working in the once-shadowy gender data field tell Devex it’s time to take next steps. But first, five things to know about the gender data revolution:

1. The size of the gender data gap is …

“Huge,” Plan International’s Zahra Sethna told Devex. “There’s a lot that we know we don’t know. And then some gaps have yet to be revealed.”

Sethna leads content development for the SDG Tracker Initiative launched at Women Deliver by Plan International, the International Women’s Health Coalition, KPMG, ONE Campaign and Women Deliver. The joint initiative will call on existing data as well as help collect new quantitative and qualitative data to monitor 30 to 40 strategically chosen gender-related Sustainable Development Goal indicators.

The initiative — and closing the data gap — isn’t just about the data itself, but also about ensuring that the groups who need it have it, whether that’s political decision-makers or women’s and girl’s rights organizations, Sethna explained.

2. Progress requires closing 28 key gender data gaps. But not all of Goal 5’s indicators are ready to be measured.

Devex’s Kelli Rogers interviewed Papa Seck, statistics specialist at U.N. Women, about their flagship program “Making Women and Girls Count.” The Gates Foundation’s $80 million commitment to gender equality is an “unmistakable sign” that accurate and reliable data on women and girls is a priority to the global development community, Seck said.

Data2x has identified 28 gaps across five domains: health, education, economic opportunities, political participation and human security. And the initiative, along with Open Data Watch, has identified 16 global indicators that are “ready to measure” outcomes for women and girls, including but not limited to goal five on gender equality.

But only three of the 14 indicators for Goal 5 are being regularly collected in most countries and have accepted international standards for measurement.

Increasing the ability and capacity of countries to collect data and report on gender-related indicators is something the Gates Foundation is working toward with it’s $40 million earmarked for closing the gender data gap, Sarah Hendriks, director of gender equality at the foundation, told Devex.

3. Collecting gender data is complicated. In fact, it’s “like an octopus.”

Already, “we don’t have to spend as much time convincing new audiences that gender data is important,” Courey Pryor said. But gender data’s many implications makes it challenging from a strategic planning and communications standpoint.

“It’s like an octopus, it goes in so many different directions,” she said. “The link between gender data and women’s economic empowerment is huge, but that’s just one area.”

Issues such as civil registration and vital statistics, which at their most fundamental level are about gender data from the very start of someone’s life, have totally different needs as far as collection, Courey Pryor explained.

What’s more, data is not only a technical issue, it’s also a values-based and a political issue. Given finite resources for data collection, choices are made about what to measure, how to measure it and who is measuring — choices that can deepen a data divide and provide sexist or bad data.

“We measure what we value, and if it’s not part of the mindset that women’s unpaid work in the home has an economic value in addition to other benefits, and we therefore do not measure that work, then we cannot see how women drive the economic productivity of nations,” Courey Pryor said. “It contributes to a culture of invisibility.”

Reproductive age is defined as between 15 and 49 by every demographic health survey in the world, for example. But girls younger than 15 account for 2 million of the 7.3 million births that by adolescent girls under 18 every year in developing countries, according to UNFPA.

“They don’t show up in the statistics,” Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International, told Devex at Women Deliver 2016.

Part of the Gates Foundation’s financial commitment will go toward data gaps that lack coverage or granularity of information. Already, data gaps on unpaid care work and economic assets have emerged as candidates. One of the key issues remains a lack of international survey standards as well, Hendriks said, so Gates is looking to pilot a module to better collect unpaid care work information in World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization and International Labor Organization surveys already being conducted.

4. Gender data gaps will be closed through partnerships. And there are many, many partnerships.

Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International, explains the organization’s plan to spur and accelerate greater gender data collection.

The “gender data revolution” is part of a wholesale shift in the way the development community thinks about collecting and using data. Part of that shift is standing “shoulder to shoulder to say collectively that ‘yes gender data matters,’” Hendriks said.

According to Courey Pryor, the key stakeholders on the road to better gender data can be broken down to national political leaders; leaders of philanthropies, U.N. agencies, multilaterals, and nonprofits; heads of private sector companies; statisticians, data scientists, and surveyors; individuals, and women’s and girls’ organizations.

Data2X’s current partnerships focus on seven priority areas, including civil registration and vital statistics, women’s work and employment, and big data and gender.

The Gates Foundation and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have also already emerged as crucial funders and research supporters of greater gender data collection. U.N. Women, meanwhile, is launching a flagship initiative called “Making Every Woman and Girl Count” focused on better gender statistics for monitoring and implementing the SDGs. And Plan International and a group of civil society organizations are working together on the SDG Tracker Initiative.

The innovative initiatives of local actors will be just as important.

TechMousso — a gender data competition in Ivory Coast co-sponsored by Data2X, bilateral aid agency Millennium Challenge Corp. and the World Wide Web Foundation — encouraged teams to develop innovative solutions to fill gender data gaps identified by the local civil society actors. The winning projects proposed solutions such as a web application to record data on available maternity ward spaces to reduce preventable maternal mortality, and a platform to collect anonymous information on gender-based violence to create a map of incidents for informing public awareness campaigns.

5. Data is already unlocking change for women and girls.

It’s just as important to focus on investments in data that are already delivering, Gates’ Hendriks told Devex. Sex-disaggregated data on primary school enrollment and completion rates has unlocked change for girls’ education, for example, by helping to identify which countries have advanced girls’ education and determine how to better promote transition to secondary schools.

“That wouldn’t have happened without having sex-disaggregated data,” Hendriks said.

In Uganda, data available in real time through the Gates-supported Performance Monitoring and Accountability 2020 is helping identify which women and girls have access to lifesaving contraception and services — and which aren’t being reached.

Continuing to close the gender data gap, experts tell Devex, will help reveal unfair differences between males and females in their capabilities and opportunities, and give policymakers and civil society the chance to codesign a world where girls and women can thrive.

With potential to change the trajectory of crises, such as famines or the spread of diseases, the innovative use of data will drive a new era for global development. Throughout this monthlong Data Driven discussion, Devex and partners will explore how the data revolution is changing our approach to achieving development outcomes and reshaping the future of our industry. Help us drive the conversation forward by tagging #DataDriven and @devex.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.