While we cannot sum-up women in numbers, gender data are important

08 septembre 2021

By Isabelle Durant, Acting Secretary-General, UNCTAD, and Dr. Samira Asma, Assistant Director-General, World Health Organization

Infographic showing gender inequality


Gender gaps and biases continue in all spheres of life – wages, access to the internet, access to medicines, and medical research, just to name a few. Yet, data are not systematically collected and produced to understand these many gender gaps, especially those that persist in economy and trade.

Lack of data can lead to misguided policy measures or unintended impacts. It may also reinforce gender bias and stereotyping. Sometimes lack of data can be a useful way of keeping a debate closed and preventing new perspectives.

Assessing gender dimensions has not been part of the traditional toolbox. In many spheres, this has been neglected, including in global public health and international trade. Yet, this is changing, and we simply cannot afford not to invest in gender data if we are committed to fostering a more equal world through inclusive policies.

Data shed light towards more inclusive policy and better outcomes

The COVID pandemic is a prime example of why it is important to assess gender differentiated impacts. The crisis has affected differently women and men’s health and opportunities. Thanks to a broad range of data on cases, hospitalization, mortality, calls to domestic violence helplines, unemployment, care work, etc. policies to react and combat the crisis could be informed.

In the area of health, data have been critical to capture and alert about unequal gender impacts. Gender stereotypes begin to impact health and well-being early in life. WHO research shows that girls in Europe have lower life satisfaction. Girls have higher dissatisfaction with their bodies compared with boys. Women also experience considerably higher rates of physical and/or sexual violence, as well as human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Moreover, gender intersects with other social determinants of health and forms of discrimination influencing exposure to health risks, health-seeking behaviours and the ability to access health services. This is why WHO takes measuring the gender dimension of health  so seriously, and set up the Health Equity Monitor to track a range of such indicators.

Measuring gender impacts is valuable also in areas which are less people centred and where the gender dimension may be more hidden or less obvious. A good example is trade. From UNCTAD’s research on gender-in-trade we know that, for instance, in Georgia better gender equality in firm ownership and management can contribute to women’s economic empowerment as women-owned trading businesses employ more women and offer a lower gender wage gap.

Whereas in the European Union, export-intensive sectors typically provide higher salaries but unfortunately also a higher gender pay gap.

Preliminary findings from Finland, known for its high gender equality, show that the country is still far from reaching gender equality in how women participate in and benefit from international trade.

These findings offer ample material for policy-making. For instance, they demonstrate the socio-economic benefit of supporting women-owned trading businesses as a means for reducing the wage gap. They also show the need to support women to participate in international trade.

Chile is an insightful case in how to use gender-in-trade data. Its data about the participation of women-led companies in exports are regularly used to inform trade policymakers and led the country to become a pioneer in negotiating chapters on gender in its free trade agreements.

But to guarantee better outcomes, more data and policy may still not be sufficient. Critical questions remain how a policy is implemented, which criteria and indicators are used, how rigorous the monitoring process is, and how the evaluation process works. In other words, commitment remains key.

Moreover, policy is driven by various factors, including political agendas, voters, or the dissatisfaction of citizens. Going against stereotypes or strong lobbies defending their acquired privilege will always be a challenge. But objectivizing the discussion and reality with reliable data is an important factor.

Building capacity to measure what needs to be measured

Statistical offices around the globe are striving to develop their data infrastructure to allow more agile responses to emerging and increasingly complex data needs, such as those related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The WHO has just concluded a global consultation for the optimization of Health Information Systems, which focuses on the architecture and organisation of health administrative data in countries. The resulting strategy will help countries to quantify the impact, including sex disaggregation, of communicable and non-communicable diseases, accidents and other events on both workforces and patients. Achieving interoperability will require investment and funding to improve data infrastructure, strengthen statistical and analytical capacity, and may require changes to survey design, to enable linkages across domains. 

Similarly, a new UNCTAD-led project helps countries link national statistical data to assess gender-in-trade. It makes use of existing data collected by statistical authorities on international trade, gender equality in education, access to productive resources, health, time-use, the participation of women and men in the economy and the labour force, and their income and roles in society. Based on a conceptual framework developed by UNCTAD in 2018, national statistical offices can map their data against trade policy data needs. Linking existing data is a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to developing new one-off surveys.

Preliminary findings of the project show that linking existing microdata on trade and businesses with data on individuals’ education, jobs and earnings is a sustainable way forward to inform trade policy.

Also examining trade and the economy from a health perspective offers valuable insights. For instance, there is scope to compile a Healthy Foods Trade Index, which could be correlated with other indicators, such as, obesity or coronary heart disease – all of which have a gender dimension. There is also scope to further explore issues around equitable access to medicines. We will need to build more capacity and forge new alliances to investigate these issues.

Seizing the power of partnerships to produce better data for gender-inclusive policy

UNCTAD started to work on gender-in-trade statistics after the signing of the Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade, to get the facts straight for trade policy. This work has been done in collaboration with many international organizations, such as the European Commission, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the UN Economic Commission for Europe, UN Women, and countries like Canada, Finland, Georgia and other pilot and pioneering countries.

WHO, too, collaborates with international organisations and member states to improve all of their statistics, including sex disaggregation. The WHO works with over 300 partners through their Health Data Collaborative, including the private sector, academia, civil society, citizen science to leverage new opportunities.

In addition to the provision of better data in the national context, this work aims to identify a core set of gender-in-trade indicators to facilitate international comparability. UNCTAD is developing guidance on how to fill this data gap starting with data reuse.

The importance of gender statistics for women’s well-being and economic and social empowerment is the message we need to bring to the upcoming global events on statistics, such as the UNCTAD15 Gender and Development Forum, the UNECE Group of Experts on Gender Statistics, the Global Forum on Gender Statistics, and the United Nations World Data Forum. With more and better data, we can make a valuable contribution to Generation Equality.