Liz Venable, Susan Settergren, Ryan Ubuntu Olson - Feb 20 2019
Sexist Data Lead to Sexist Programs: A Response to the Gates Letter

Women with their babies during postnatal care at Cottage Hospital Enugu, Nigeria. Photo Credit: Voices for Change

Liz Venable, Susan Settergren, and Ryan Ubuntu Olson respond to the Bill and Melinda Gates Annual Letter, focusing on ways to improve the representation of gender in data for international development programming, from agriculture to AIDS.

In 2016 alone, OECD member countries contributed USD 132 billion in development assistance to countries around the world. Much of this funding goes toward development programs that work to improve the lives of underserved communities, in areas from agriculture to healthcare to access to technology and financial services.

Naturally, these programs are designed and evaluated based on data, which, as the 2019 Annual Gates Letter points out, don’t always capture a diversity of perspectives. Something as simple as understanding the number of women in Malawi who own a phone (and so can respond to a survey) can mean the difference between real, enduring impact, and billions spent on programs that fail to meet people’s needs. In short, sexist data lead to sexist programs.

What can we do to mitigate the risks of sexist data?

Improving Policies and Programs with Gendered Data

We know that programs aiming to improve nutrition, productivity, and empowerment may work differently for men and women. To understand the socioeconomic impacts of our programs and improve, we must measure outcomes for men and women separately.

For example, when looking at an agriculture project in Malawi, gendered data have shown that women often have smaller plots and prefer to buy seed, fertilizer, and other inputs in smaller packages than men. This helps the project know that it should provide input packages small enough for the average woman’s plot, so that women don’t waste money buying more than they need.

It’s also important that data capture the things that both men and women care about. For instance, men may prioritise improving crop yields while women may prefer to reduce the number of hours they spend working in the field; a program that focuses only on impact on yield may fail to address women’s needs.

Gender should also be considered in the ways data are gathered. While technology has enabled more efficient data collection through the use of phone surveys, women in smallholder households in Malawi are far less likely than men to own phones. One method for reaching women in countries like Malawi is to work through institutions like microfinance groups and cooperatives that already have a relationship with them.

It is also important that gendered data are not only collected, but also used. Many development projects and organisations collect data about women and the impact of women’s programs, but there is no central repository for these data and lessons learned. Developing country governments should be supported to institutionalise gendered data collection at the national level, and to integrate these data into their planning and strategy.

Fighting AIDS with Gendered Data

Women and girls are not the only ones affected by sexist data. Currently, one of the greatest challenges in global efforts to end the AIDS pandemic is getting men and boys tested for HIV, and linking those who test positive with life-saving treatment. Large-scale surveys have primarily focused on women, which means much less is known about the sexual and reproductive health of men and boys. Additionally, compared with women and girls, men and boys typically do not routinely access health services. By including ways to reach men and boys to fill these data gaps, HIV programs can tailor their services to better serve men and boys and stop the spread of HIV among the most vulnerable populations.

And data gaps extend beyond the historic classification of females and males. Looking at data through a broader gender and sexual diversity lens is long overdue. Data collection tools and analysis that reflect only binary gender and heteronormative relationships contribute to gross undercounting of gender and sexual minorities. There is a huge need for more inclusive approaches to gender data, and trainings like gender and sexual diversity sensitisation for researchers and decision makers can help.

Incorporating efforts like these into international development projects and business practices is just a small piece of addressing the systemic lack of gender representation in data. In development, we often say, “What gets measured, gets done.” If our measures are sexist, then our programs will be sexist. Adapting what we measure, how we measure, and even our definitions can ensure our international development efforts are truly making an impact.

Palladium leads AgDiv for USAID as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Palladium also leads Health Policy Plus, USAID’s global flagship health policy project. Palladium is a partner on USAID’s global MEASURE Evaluation project, which provides technical leadership to advance the field of global health monitoring and evaluation.