How can think tanks support the production and use of gender data?

27 July 2021

This is a summary of the 10th working paper of the On Think Tanks Working Paper Series: How can think tanks support the production and use of gender data?

Gender data: what we measure, what we overlook

Better data on women and girls’ status can guide policies, leverage financial resources, and inform global priorities. In most policy circles, the notion of gender data is directly associated with the availability of sex-disaggregated data. While sex-disaggregated data has value and provides insight on the differentiated challenges that women and men face, not all data- nor data by itself- can accurately portray the complexity of gender inequality in different contexts.

Several questions need to be addressed to ensure that gender data offers the right perspectives to fight gender inequality:

  • Is the data used to build indicators and measurement tools fit for purpose?
  • Are gender biases and damaging preconceptions about women and girls’ roles and needs shaping data collection and analysis?
  • What other aspects of women’s lives are not being accounted for through existing gender data?

While academic researchers and feminist scholars have taken up these questions, there are fewer discussions on these issues in policy circles and among data creators and users. This opens the debate on bridging this gap to ensure that gender data is fit for purpose and is not reproducing power imbalances and gender biases. Think tanks, as knowledge generators, brokers and policy influencers, may be particularly well positioned to bridge this gap.

This paper reviews debates on gender data from a feminist perspective to identify potential limitations of the data used for policymaking and identify ways to strengthen it. Using the concept of the data value chain, the paper brings attention to limitations that emerge when gender data is gathered, interpreted, and used. It also analyses the potential role of think tanks in each of these phases.

Gender data value chain

For gender data to be transformative it needs to be mainstreamed into every policy area and every stage of the policy cycle. To do so, data goes through a production and use process, through which it gains or loses value. The data value chain describes connections between steps that transform low-value inputs into high-value outputs. Open Data Watch & Data 2X (2018) propose four stages along the data value chain: data collection, publication, analysis and uptake, and impact

Seeing gender data as part of a value chain promotes a focus on issues that prevent data from addressing gender-related inequalities. If researchers, think tanks, and other policy actors increasingly perceive data as part of a value chain, there will be more space to challenge preconceptions about the neutrality of data at different stages, and to include feminist approaches in its production and use.

How can think tanks contribute to the generation and use of better gender data?

Data is not neutral. Power structures shape the way data is gathered, interpreted, and used. A feminist approach to evidence urges researchers and thinktankers to consider the legitimacy of data in the eyes of policy-makers and the public and the assumptions and representations behind gender data.

The concept of data value chain is useful because it can be used to map critical stages where data used in policy and decision-making can become more gender sensitive. The roles for think tanks to contribute to the production and use of better data by policy-makers include:

  1. Creating spaces for assessment and contestation of gender data and identifying strategies to improve its quality. Think tanks’ ability to interact with different stakeholders is extremely valuable to ensure diversity of views and perspectives in these spaces. This includes consultation with prospective users of gender data. Think tanks can bring those discussions to the policy-making arena and contribute to bringing them into practice.
  2. Bringing attention to the gender data that is being collected and the data that is missing. If think tanks are actively involved in data production, either as producers of data or in an oversight function, they can raise awareness about the limitations of existing data and the barriers that prevent other data from being produced.
  3. Diversifying and validating other sources of gender data. Think tanks can promote the use of qualitative and alternative sources of gender data. This can contribute to reducing data mistrust among users who see quantitative-data-only approaches as reductionist and biased.
  4. Connecting users to data. Think tanks can build bridges between users and data by sharing and monitoring good practices and lessons about data publication, dissemination, and uptake. This is a crucial contribution for data producers seeking to reach their target audiences efficiently.
  5. Funding or supporting funding for research and collection of data with a gender perspective by putting this issue on donors’ agendas.

Some of these roles and contributions overlap, and they are intrinsically connected to the role of think tanks as knowledge brokers, providers of evidence, and facilitators of interactions and dialogues between various actors. Think tanks need to question the data they use and engage in processes to generate, collect, and share data from diverse sources.