Using data to measure gender equality

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which set out principles and goals for achieving gender equality and empowering women, how far has the world come in realizing this vision and in improving the status of women around the world? To assess progress made in improving the lives of women and men, the production and use of relevant, accurate and timely gender statistics is critical.

Recognizing the importance of appropriate data for designing policies and assessing progress towards the goal of gender equality, the Beijing Platform for Action requested national, regional and international statistical services to “ensure that statistics related to individuals are collected, compiled, analyzed and presented by sex and age and reflect problems, issues and questions related to women and men in society”. It is through the collection, production, analysis and use of gender statistics that policy makers and development practitioners can begin to properly address the specific issues of women and men.

Gender statistics are not just relevant for monitoring the status of women. They can also be used to shed light on specific issues relating to men, such as men’s risk of accidents, harmful use of tobacco and alcohol, and access to paid paternity leave. Ideally, gender statistics should be used to inform all policies and programmes, so that gender issues are mainstreamed and policies are designed to enable the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by women and men. The inclusion of a stand-alone goal on “achieving gender equality and empower all women and girls” in the Outcome document of the Open Working Group (OWG) for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in New York in July 2014, reinforces the importance of this issue and will likely increase the demand for gender statistics that reflect the differences between men and women in society.

Gender statistics – challenges at every stage
Critical as they are to designing effective policies and programmes, the production of gender statistics presents significant challenges to National Statistical Systems (NSSs) in many countries and many data gaps exist, particularly in areas such as poverty, time use, violence against women, and the environment. “There is an urgent need to improve statistical systems to ensure the full mainstreaming of gender into data production, analysis and dissemination and increase the availability of gender statistics for national and international monitoring,” said Stefan Schweinfest, Director of UN DESA’s Statistics Division, as he addressed a Gender Statistics Workshop in Fiji in August this year.

“There is an urgent need to improve statistical systems to ensure the full mainstreaming of gender into data production, analysis and dissemination and increase the availability of gender statistics for national and international monitoring”

Stefan Schweinfest
Director of UN DESA’s Statistics Division

Gender statistics means more than just sex-disaggregated data, although in some cases this can be a challenge in itself. Producing gender statistics also means collecting and analysing data that address specific issues that may affect women more than men (or vice versa), as well as incorporating a gender dimension into data collection processes so that the experiences of all women and men are properly captured and gender biases are avoided.

It is important to note that while sex refers to the biological differences between women and men, gender refers to the social constructs of being ‘male’ or ‘female’, which can vary over time and across cultures.

One of the major challenges in producing gender statistics is that they are often seen as addressing a ‘women’s issue’ and become marginalized instead of mainstreamed, with no clear institutional arrangements in place to coordinate their production and limited resources dedicated to data collection and dissemination.

For instance, from a global review of national gender statistics programmes, undertaken by the UN DESA’s Statistics Division in collaboration with the UN regional commissions in 2012, out of 126 responding countries only 13 percent had a specific budget allocated to gender statistics within the overall national budget for statistics, 47 percent relied on ad-hoc/project funds and the remaining 39 percent had no funds at all.

In some cases data are available but they are not used to produce gender statistics, or gender statistics are produced but they are not presented in a way that facilitates clear understanding of gender issues and differences. Another significant challenge relates to the need to address gender equality and women’s empowerment for different demographic and social groups.

Life-cycle analyzes of gender equality suggest that women and girls face different constraints that can be age-specific or may be specific to different socio-economic groups. Disaggregated statistics along these lines should be promoted as well as a renewed effort to fully analyze existing survey data, and to invest in other data sources, including administrative records.

Guidelines on how to collect data on violence against women
In many cases, gender issues are emerging issues for which there are few international standards for countries to follow. In the case of violence against women, a relatively new area of research, guidelines on how best to collect data are only recently being established.

This sensitive issue requires unique approaches to data collection, which take into account key issues of safety and ethics. Specialized training is required for interviewers to enable them to build rapport with respondents and gain their trust, so that respondents feel able to open up on this personal and often traumatic topic.

UN DESA’s Statistics Division recently published Guidelines on Producing Statistics on Violence Against Women – Statistical Surveys, which provides information for countries looking to collect data on this underreported area according to internationally agreed standards facilitating cross-country comparisons.

Working to improve gender statistics
To work towards meeting these challenges, the UN Statistical Commission established the Global Gender Statistics Programme, coordinated by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Gender Statistics (IAEG-GS) and implemented by UN DESA’s Statistics Division and key partner agencies.

The overall goal is to enhance the capacity of countries to collect, disseminate and use reliable statistics and indicators to assess the relative situation of women and men in gender-sensitive, policy-relevant areas. It focuses on: strengthening national capacity for the production, dissemination and use of gender relevant statistics; developing and promoting methodological guidelines and addressing emerging issues of gender concern; facilitating access to data; and improving coherence among existing initiatives on gender statistics through international coordination.

One recent achievement is the establishment of a Minimum Set of Gender Indicators comprised of 52 quantitative and 11 qualitative indicators. These indicators address the key policy concerns identified in the Beijing Platform for Action and represent a significant step forward in identifying priorities in the production of harmonized gender statistics and facilitating national, regional and international assessment of progress towards gender equality.

Taking stock and moving forward

As part of the Global Gender Statistics Programme, a series of Global Forums have taken place around the world to bring together both users and producers of gender statistics. The upcoming 5th Global Forum on Gender Statistics, to be held in Aguascalientes, Mexico, from 3-5 November, in collaboration with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Geografia (INEGI), will bring together over 100 experts to evaluate current international standards, share best practice at the national and international levels and discuss on-going initiatives to strengthen gender statistics.

The Forum will focus on issues related to measuring and monitoring gender equality in the following ‘thematic pillars’: women and the economy; violence against women; time use; political participation; the environment; and women in armed conflicts. It will provide an opportunity to assess the current status of gender statistics and how they can be further strengthened so as to best inform policies aiming at improving the lives of women and men around the world.




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