What Is the Gender Data Gap, and Why Does it Matter?
There’s a lack of information about how half of the population experiences the world. Being aware of what can’t be seen (at first) is important to reflect the world more accurately in the news.
Have you ever wanted to cover a story but couldn’t, for the life of you, find the right data to give it more context and legitimacy?
This happened to me while working on our climate-themed newsletter back in November. I was trying to find a fully representative and reliable statistic reflecting women’s participation in the agriculture sector globally. It seemed like a pretty reasonable request at the time, but it turned out to be impossible to fulfill. And it has to do with what is referred to as the “gender data gap.”
The gender data gap is about how there isn’t enough data collected on women and girls’ experiences in life. And when data is collected, it tends to get thrown into the mix and not be studied for potential differences between how women and men are affected. This isn’t necessarily done consciously to exclude women. It stems from a system that, even in its attempts to be “gender neutral,” still acts like the male perspective is the default human experience, and the female perspective is the exception. (Why else would we call it “mankind”?)
“The presumption that what is male is universal is a direct consequence of the gender data gap. Whiteness and maleness can only go without saying because most other identities never get said at all. But male universality is also a cause of the gender data gap: because women aren’t seen and aren’t remembered, because male data makes up the majority of what we know, what is male comes to be seen as universal. It leads to the positioning of women, half the global population, as a minority. With a niche identity and a subjective point of view.” — Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
There are many consequences to this gap. As journalists, for instance, a lack of knowledge about what goes on for half of the population means an incomplete and inaccurate representation of the world we live in. Which has not only an impact on our own understanding of what’s happening, but the public’s too. And that, in turn, can contribute to more bias. It’s a vicious circle.
For some women, it can even be a matter of life or death. In 2019, after years of investigating, award-winning author and campaigner Caroline Criado Perez brought the gender data gap to the public’s attention through a highly-acclaimed book. In Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, she goes over many studies, articles and other examples to show how deep this gap goes in every field imaginable — including the way cities are designed and how artificial intelligence perpetuates bias. One of the most striking facts she points out has to do with health: heart attacks can go undiagnosed in women because the symptoms differ from those that men experience.
“It’s a lack of data but also a lack of perception,” adds Lisa Falco, a data scientist of more than 15 years that specializes in technology for women’s health. “We do associate heart attacks more with men, but cardiovascular disease is also the number one killer of women, so it’s important to be aware of that.”
So there are many layers to this gap. It’s tricky, too. As blatant as the lack of data can be at times — ie. no statistics available —, it can go unnoticed if we don’t pay attention.
Back to the example that we started off with. I did find a percentage of women’s participation in the agriculture sector globally: 43% according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). But this statistic not only dates back to 2011, but is only based on the available data. So it doesn’t account for all women working in the sector and their real share of labor — in many countries, they tend to do a lot of unpaid and/or informal work that isn’t officially recognized. Plus, compiling statistics from different sources (and countries) isn’t always possible since they don’t all use the same methodology in their surveys and research.
What to do, then, to paint a faithful picture of the world? In November, we paired the FAO figure with one that is more specific and telling: in India, about 80% of people working in agriculture are women. But maybe we should’ve done more than just that, maybe we should’ve pointed out the flaws and context of that global percentage. Flawed and incomplete data is part of the facts.
“We need to differentiate between stories with data and stories about data. Journalists should, of course, continue to tell stories with data and incorporate statistics and visualizations that make readers better understand and relate to their topics. But we also need journalists to tell stories about data – and about the lack of data,” says former Data2X executive director Emily Courey Pryor.