Bending the Curve Towards Gender Equality: A Q&A About the Power of Gender Data with Papa Seck, Chief Statistician of UN Women
Bending the Curve Towards Gender Equality: A Q&A About the Power of Gender Data with Papa Seck, Chief Statistician of UN Women

Bending the Curve Towards Gender Equality: A Q&A About the Power of Gender Data with Papa Seck, Chief Statistician of UN Women

In a special Deliver for Good hosted conversation in advance of this year’s virtual United Nations World Data Forum, Alison Holder, Director of Equal Measures 2030 and Deliver for Good Advisory Group partner, speaks with Papa Seck, Chief Statistician of UN Women, about why decision-makers need to get serious about capturing gender data that recognize intersecting inequalities.

Today, most data are not collected and presented in a gender-disaggregated way. And when research does look at gender separately, it’s common practice to classify girls and women or boys and men as one homogenous group. But without gender data, broken down by the many factors that shape people’s lives — including race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, and socioeconomic class — we lose the critical information needed to paint a clear picture of the diverse challenges that girls and women face globally.

By fully harnessing the power of data that accurately reflect the ways that different people experience various forms of inequality and crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have an opportunity to drive smarter investments and create the policies, programs, and solutions needed to tackle deeply entrenched inequity, advance gender equality, and create more inclusive, resilient societies.

Alison Holder: So far, the data we have about the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored stark social and economic inequities within and between countries, and show how girls and women, particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous girls and women, have shouldered staggering increases in unpaid labor and caregiving, while also being disproportionately impacted by gender-based violence, income loss, and unemployment. Even before the pandemic, 91 percent of the over 600 gender equality advocates surveyed by Equal Measures 2030 said they felt that collecting data on issues that affect girls and women was not a priority for governments. As leaders gather virtually at the UN World Data Forum against the backdrop of the pandemic and the budget pressures that may limit social spending, what steps can governments take to address data that hide differences in vulnerabilities amongst groups by income, race, and other relevant markers of disadvantage?

Papa Seck: I can tell you there is a quick win, which is relatively low cost and easy to do but unfortunately not prioritized enough. Even though we still have large gender data gaps, we have a lot of census, survey, and administrative data already at our disposal. The problem is that they are often not analyzed enough to show inequality across groups. We need to identify these data sources and reprocess them using an intersectional (multi-disaggregation) approach. Doing this will bring visibility to not only challenges faced by women and girls but will also tell us what we can easily change in future data collection to fill the gaps.

At UN Women, we’ve supported and done a lot of analysis of this sort, and what it reveals is clear:  women and girls from marginalized groups are consistently being left behind. We devoted an entire chapter to data reprocessing in our 2018 report, Turning Promises into Action, and have updated this in our recent efforts to monitor the SDGs, including the just released 2020 edition of The SDGs Gender Snapshot.

The COVID-19 pandemic is sharpening these fault lines of inequality. Our latest report, From Insights to Action, shows how vulnerabilities faced by women from poor, marginalized, and excluded communities exacerbate their exposure and risk to the virus but not enough countries are reporting data by sex and other socioeconomic characteristics to fully understand COVID-19’s impact on women and girls. Without these data, I am afraid that the response by countries will remain inadequate.

Alison Holder: Papa Seck, based on your experience as Chief Statistician at UN Women, what are some of the greatest challenges to collecting data that accurately reflect the broader impact of social and political environments on girls, women, and gender equality? Can you share a few examples of actions that governments facing tighter budgets can still manage to take in order to ensure that data are disaggregated not only by sex and gender but by other aspects of identity, including race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class?

Papa Seck: Data collection can be an expensive endeavor, and resources are a perennial challenge even at the best of times. Some countries are solving this challenge by using administrative data, which is the most convenient and cost-effective data source that can be used to monitor the SDGs because it is already being routinely collected. We studied six countries in Africa and found that 63 percent of the gender-specific SDG indicators can be derived from administrative sources. Imagine the potential for monitoring progress! In Ethiopia, the recommendations of the study are already being used to find ways to incorporate this data into their plans.

Household surveys also have the potential to improve data disaggregation to ‘leave no on behind.’ But to realize their full potential, they need more support. And as I said above, reprocessing them generates new findings. We are seeing this happen in Kenya and Tanzania as part of the Women Count program where reprocessing survey data are generating new data on women’s economic empowerment to improve SDG monitoring. In Kenya, working with the Kenya Bureau of Statistics and the Council of Governors, through data reprocessing, we produced the first-ever county gender data sheets for an initial 10 out of 47 counties. The county gender data sheets brought about three new women’s empowerment-related legislations in Kitui County and directly informed decision-making on the supply of contraceptives in Kirinyaga County.

The Inter-Secretariat Working Group on Household Surveys, which I co-chair with the World Bank, fosters improvement in national, regional, and international household survey programs to improve SDG monitoring. With more donor support, a lot could be achieved thought this mechanism.

Alison Holder: It sometimes feels like we’re moving in the wrong direction: recent data show that progress on the vast majority of the 18 indicators included in the SDGs, including those related to SDG 5, has stopped or even regressed. Even before the crisis, new research from EM2030 found that half of countries studied (67 out of 129 countries) — home to 2.1 billion girls and women — wouldn’t achieve any of five key gender equality targets by 2030 if their pre-pandemic pace continues. It’s a hard reality for anyone to face. Still, there’s reason to be hopeful. What are some of the wins that we have seen at the global or country level that have moved the needle on progress by harnessing the power of gender data? And what are a few key lessons that we should take from this year about the building blocks of inclusive, sustainable progress for all?

Papa Seck: Our latest Women’s Rights in Review Report looking at progress over the last 25 years shows that although there has been progress in some areas, in far too many other areas, progress has been painfully slow. Now COVID-19 has shown that even the fragile gains of the past decades can be wiped out in a matter of months. Our new gender and poverty forecasts show that unless measures are taken now, 47 million women and girls could be pushed into poverty specifically by COVID-19 by 2021.

But this backsliding is not inevitable. The latest UN SDGs Moment during the General Assembly showcased lots of bold policies by governments in the last few months that were considered impossible before. For example, in a few months, Colombia doubled the total number of people covered in social protection programs built over decades. In 2015, Uruguay put in place a publicly financed comprehensive National Care System that guarantees the provision of care for children, people with disabilities, and older people. By strengthening the range of care services, Uruguay is today one of the leading countries worldwide in terms of childcare provision and employment rates for mothers of young children. So, armed with the evidence and will to address gender equality concerns, rapid progress is possible.

The response to this crisis is a case in point. We have just launched a new COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker with UNDP to understand to what extend COVID-19 policy responses are addressing women’s needs. The results show that while 104 in 135 countries have taken measures to address the crisis-related spike in gender-based violence, only 10 percent of fiscal and economic measures taken by 130 countries to help businesses weather the crisis support women’s economic security. Clearly these kinds of gender-blind policies that are completely at odds with the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and girls are a major impediment to progress toward gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Alison Holder: When it comes to building and maintaining social systems that meet the needs of all girls and all women, collecting quality, gender-disaggregated data and data on issues that are relevant to girls and women is not enough. We also need to be able to translate information into evidence-based policies. Still, statisticians often find themselves with messy data on multiple databases, platforms, or spreadsheets. What is UN Women doing at the country-level, and what can other international agencies do together in order to help improve the usability — and real-world impact of new and existing sources of information on gender?

Papa Seck: We’ve found that too often, the reason why there is a big disconnect between the data that get produced by national statistical offices (NSOs) and the uptake of that data is the lack of communication between data users and producers. NSOs often see their job as limited to producing the data and publishing it in long technical reports and clunky databases. Users often do not even know about the existence of this data, let alone have access to it or can interpret it. So, in 2016 when we started the Women Count global gender data program, one of the core objectives was to solve this challenge and make sure that gender data gets used.

Along with increased data production, the program places a premium on supporting national statistical systems to build an enabling environment for gender statistics and improve data accessibility and use. We encourage the creation of national gender statistics coordination mechanisms that include civil society and other actors, institute regular user-producer dialogues that are an important way to make sure data users have a say in what gets produced, and train users to better understand and communicate gender statistics.

The results are encouraging: in Morocco where civil society ‘listeners’ helped with data collection on violence against women (VAW), they are using the data for awareness raising and to guide local service delivery for survivors. In Albania, where the national statistical office engaged users in their latest VAW survey, CSOs then used the data to successfully advocate for amendments to the Criminal Code, and the survey also led to the establishment of the first rape crisis center in the country.

You ask what international agencies can do together in order to help improve the usability of data. I think our role is of course to support countries financially and technically, but we can also work together to provide tools and solutions that countries can use. For example, we’ve teamed up with PARIS21 to develop a free e-learning course on communicating gender statistics. We also have a training module on communication as part of a curriculum developed in the Asia-Pacific region that countries are now adapting and integrating into their own training programs.

Alison Holder: Papa Seck, you’ve led the broader UN system’s efforts to collect gender data and UN Women’s 2016-2020 flagship program, ‘Making Every Woman and Girl Count,’ to bring about a radical shift in how gender statistics are used, created, and promoted. As we near the end of 2020, what are some of the main things you’ve learned from your work at the global, regional, and national levels? What has frustrated you, and what makes you hopeful?

Papa Seck: I am optimistic. When we started this program, we had no idea how it would take off. It was a big leap of faith to ask donors to invest $60 million in a gender data program. We didn’t get the full $60 million but we got $40 million, which is not bad. Governments are also investing. Cameroon just committed a $400,000 investment in our Women Count project because the government recognizes its importance. In Bangladesh, as we support the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) to conduct a time use survey, Parliament just requested that BBS produce a satellite account of unpaid care and domestic work, opening the door for policies to address it.

I have also seen in the last few years organizations such as yours — EM2030 — or Data2X that are doing incredibly important work in this field, advocating, raising awareness, and pushing statistical systems to be more gender responsive and policymakers to make use of the data to transform the lives of women and girls. And the result of this collective work is that today gender data are high on the global statistical and policy agenda in a way that they have never been before.

This pandemic is of course an extraordinary challenge, but I think that we can use it to accelerate change. I believe that if we use this time as an opportunity to support national statistical systems to collect inclusive data, showing how it has affected women and girls in all of their diversity, and policymakers commit to using this evidence to build back better, then we will unavoidably begin to  bend  the gender equality curve permanently upward.