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Embrace Data and Big Thinking to Meet Gender SDGs – Equal Measures 2030

To make real progress on women’s economic advancement in developing countries, we need better data and systems-level thinking, says Alison Holder, Director of Equal Measures 2030. She spoke with Women’s Advancement Deeply about what she’s watching in 2018.

Written by Jihii Jolly Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Cambodian workers shout slogans during a launch of campaign to demand higher wages at a garment factory industrial park in Phnom Penh on September 17, 2014. Charly Two/AFP via Getty Images

NEW YORK – One of the most ambitious of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – intended to be achieved by 2030 – is that of full gender equality. At current rates of progress, research shows that this is centuries, rather than years, off.

But the announcement of the targets in 2015 spurred the formation of a number of organizations dedicated to hastening that progress. Equal Measures 2030 is an international partnership working to compile data on global gender gaps, and to get that data into the hands of the women’s rights advocates who are campaigning to close them.

As part of Women’s Advancement Deeply’s launch coverage, we’re asking our community of experts what the biggest impediments are to meaningful economic progress for women in developing countries, and how those impediments can be overcome. Here, we speak with Alison Holder, the director of Equal Measures 2030, about systemic change and the push for better data on women and girls.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What are the big questions about women’s economic advancement that you’re seeking answers to in 2018?

Alison Holder: For a long time, debates about women’s economic advancement have been really focused on individual-level intervention. Ensuring that groups of women have training, targeting microfinance interventions towards specific women, looking at mentoring schemes, things that are really targeted on the individual.

In 2018, I’d love to see the debate shifting more to system-level changes. Unpaid care and unpaid work, discrimination, basic legal protections and rights, those real system-level issues.

I would add another system-level issue around tax justice and public finance. I think these are little recognized as issues that affect women’s economic advancement, but I see them as being really crucial enablers of gender equality.

When I worked at ActionAid, they did a study on garment factories in Cambodia. The themes would be the same in many low-paid sectors whether in developing countries or even here in the U.K. or the U.S. It showed stuff that is probably not surprising, that pay and conditions in the factories are very poor. But if you look at the other issues, in this case most of the women were poor, poorly educated migrants that were sent to the city to help support their families. It’s not an accident.

These women were seen as being more submissive, less informed, less likely to be vocal about their rights, more likely to work for lower wages. It’s about looking at how the system thrives on suppressing women’s rights. For that sector, it was the way that they attract companies to invest in Cambodia, based off the backs of women’s work.

A lot of the women reported violence, being targeted by their supervisors, sexually harassed, humiliated. Then, of course, when they choose to organize or make any complaints, that’s when they’re often fired. They also talked about issues in even getting to work. The fact that public transport wasn’t being invested in, or streets were poorly lit, or the areas around the factories were deemed to be unsafe. It’s a whole system that prevents women from being able to access economic opportunities equally.

The example of Cambodia shifts us away from thinking about economic advancement as targeting individual women with interventions that will empower them or increase their income, or increase their skills. Rather, think about what features of the whole system hold women as a group back.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Who needs to be at the table to set the agenda for a systemic shift?

Alison Holder: In a way, that’s part of why we [Equal Measures 2030] exist. If you think about the Sustainable Development Goals, a lot of the goals that we’re all pushing to be achieved often break down into silos. You’ll get groups that are pushing for goal five [on gender equality], or groups that are pushing the gender dimensions of the decent work goal. Getting that picture across the whole piece and the way the issues intersect is something that as advocates and a community, we actually haven’t done well.

At Equal Measures 2030, we want to track progress across all of the goals, and look at what that tells us about the advancement of women. Who needs to be at the table? I think is a really tricky one, but I think it’s, as much as possible, people who are viewing the problem in that way. People who are willing to look beyond a certain program, or a certain type of intervention. It’s tricky. It’s not comfortable to talk about patriarchal systems, and I think people get a bit turned off by the whole idea.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What are the data gaps that currently exist around economics in the developing world?

Alison Holder: We’re in the process right now of developing a new gender equality index. One of the things we want to be able to do is track progress across the SDGs for girls and women – recognizing there are huge data gaps – but we want to take what’s there and use it to get a picture of progress. We don’t want to wait until 2030 to do that.

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During WEF, Equal Measures 2030 convened a strategic group of business and development leaders to discuss data, gender and the Global Goals, strategizing on the opportunity and responsibility held by the business community in accelerating gender equality. (Equal Measures 2030)

We’re in the midst of trying to figure out what data does exist, what we can use. If we look at the things that are most relevant to the economic agenda, to be honest, we’ve really struggled to find good existing data on these issues. There might be really interesting methodologies, or measures, or studies, or metrics, but they apply to a tiny proportion of countries.

For example, there is great work being done on tracking unpaid care, and looking at time use studies, so studying how women and men in communities actually spend the hours of their day [but] we want our index to cover all countries in the world. There’s just not enough good data.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Recommended Data

Here are a few examples of new data collections that could shake up existing assumptions, recommended by Albert Motivans, head of data and insights at Equal Measures 2030, who has previously written about data collection for us.

Together for Girls – a survey of violence against children in a number of developing countries, with both analytical reports and access to a public data set. This has led to interesting work on the cost of violence to economic empowerment and economic growth.

ILO-Gallup Report – Gallup carried out a global survey for ILO that looked at global attitudes and perceptions of women and men regarding women and work in 2016. The recently published poll was conducted in 142 countries and territories, thus representative of most of the world’s population.

The EDGE initiative – organized by U.N. Women and U.N. Statistics Division, this iniative is ramping up in 2018. They’ve done some of the heavy lifting on methodological guidelines on measuring asset ownership and entrepreneurship from a gender perspective that are key to economic empowerment.

EIGE Gender Equality Index – The European Institute for Gender Equality has released new data as part of its gender equality index on access to financial resources and women’s and men’s economic situations.

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