Can Better Data Improve Gender Equality?

By Teresa Fogelberg

We are well into the new century, one in which we will likely travel to Mars, create artificial intelligence and potentially cure diseases that have plagued humanity since its inception. But flying in the face of all that we have achieved is the startling fact that women are still at a structural disadvantage in nearly every facet of life.

How can this be the case?

Not only have we not achieved gender equality, but if we look closer at some situations, such as conflicts in South Sudan or even political developments in the U.S., it can also seem that in some respects the gender gap is widening.

For example, on Feb. 27, the Bangladesh parliament approved a law that permits girls under the age of 18 to marry (under “special circumstances”) with permission from their parents and a court. The law provides no minimum age for these marriages. This is a devastating step backward for Bangladesh, which has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia and one of the highest rates in the world: 52 percent of Bangladeshi girls marry before age 18, and almost a fifth marry before the age of 15.

So on this International Women’s Day, we are faced with a pressing question: What needs to be done to address this shameful state of affairs? Or in other words, how do we ensure that the little girl born in Bangladesh enjoys the same rights and opportunities as the little boy born in England?

Of course there is no simple solution to this problem. The ugly fact is that gender inequality has always been a part of human societies. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche states, in simple and convincing words, in her smash hit booklet We Should All be Feminists: “We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved. Men [still] rule the world.”

But for the first time in history, we have the international agreements, the tools and capabilities to change this horrible state of affairs. There is a whole series of international conventions and treaties, of which the UN Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women is the most famous. And since last year, gender equality is one of the Sustainable Development Goals.

SDG 5 on gender equality

The pressing need to eliminate the gender gap is acknowledged in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which every country and every business should be working to achieve by 2030.

SDG 5 calls for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. Within this global goal, specific targets lay out the myriad ways in which females face disadvantages. Women experience de jure and de facto discrimination in nearly every region of the world. Women are also subject to an appalling level of physical and sexual violence, even in the most progressive societies on the planet: 70 percent of the victims of human trafficking are women. In some parts of the world, little girls are subjected to forced marriages and even genital mutilation.

And of course, women have unequal access to economic resources; we are all too often paid less for the same work done by men, and we have less access to financial services and ownership and control of property.

In other words, achieving SDG 5 will be incredibly challenging for all relevant actors: individual men and women, local and national governments, as well as business large and small.

The crucial first step we need to take is to collect robust data on the gender gap. This is necessary to be able to know the baseline against which we can measure results. The old adage is true: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

The data gap

Closing the gender gap will be a daunting task, but there is hope because, frankly, the world has done so little to address this problem. As a result, we can make quick gains in this area if, collectively, we are serious about improving the situation.

We need a serious effort to collect and compile useful data on gender inequality. We know that all too often women and men are operating on different playing fields, but the shocking truth is that we know very little about how pervasive discrimination against women actually is. Nor do we really have a grasp on basic facts like exactly how many women are sold into slavery each year. Rough estimates will not cut it if we are serious about tackling these problems.

Remarks from Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of U.N. Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka last September highlight the poor state of affairs when it comes to data on gender equality:

“Right now we do not have data for 80 percent of the indicators to monitor SDG 5. That is serious. This is an urgent challenge that requires urgent solutions,” she said. “Currently, lack of political will and chronic under-investment plague gender data production and only 13 percent of countries dedicate a regular budget for gender statistics.”

Empowering reporting on SDG 5

Clearly we must do better. The scarce data we have on gender equality does not paint a pretty picture, despite GRI’s 20 years of work in this space. But we need to push for even more of this data to truly understand the challenge.

Luckily the SDGs provide a framework for action. Unlike their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs explicitly call for private-sector action to help us achieve the global goals. Corporate reporting, using the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards, can help fill the data gap.

Also, GRI recently launched a groundbreaking initiative with the U.N. Global Compact called the Corporate Action Group for Reporting on the Sustainable Development Goals. This action platform builds on more than 15 years of innovation and cooperation between the two leading organizations in sustainability reporting. The goal is to produce a global list of prioritized disclosures for tracking business contributions to the SDGs. These will be presented by the platform members at a special event at the U.N. High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July. Additionally, there will be a publication on leadership and best practice for business on SDG reporting. This will be released at the U.N. Private Sector Forum, convened during the U.N. General Assembly in September.

It’s time for the business community to step up and help close the gender gap. Together we can take the first step by generating useful data on gender inequality — data that we can then use to empower action to rectify this oldest of injustices.

It’s the right thing to do, but it will also help businesses attract and retain the best young women. I truly believe that in the 21st century, women will take up their rightful position of equality. I implore all governments and businesses to be on the right side of history. We have international agreements and regulation and — maybe more importantly – a different mindset.

Chimamanda inspires us by asking us to dream about and plan for a different and fairer world: a world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves.

Image credit: Pexels

Teresa Fogelberg is GRI’s Deputy Chief Executive and heads GRI’s Policy Team, which works to enable smart policy on sustainability around the world.

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