Our Perspectives


The Goldilocks of gender data: Searching for “just right” on women in public institutions

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Civil service workshop in AzerbaijanEnsuring gender equality in public institutions starts with gathering strong data. Photo: UNDP Azerbaijan

The bad news first: we don’t know the exact state of gender equality in the world’s public institutions. The good news: once we begin monitoring this, it will be harder to ignore inequalities in the public service, which we anecdotally know exist on a global scale.

The Sustainable Development Goals have thrust us into a data revolution and we have impetus to make sure it is a gendered revolution. Inclusive governance is at the core of SDG 16 on peaceful and just societies. And so, SDG 16 has set out to measure the composition of public institutions. Without this information, governments will not have the evidence necessary for designing policies that foster equal access to and opportunities within public administration.

Nine months ago, a multidisciplinary graduate research group was formed at the University of Pittsburgh to work alongside UNDP in answering the call to action on finding the data on women’s leadership in civil service. As a first step towards designing an ideal tracking mechanism on women in public service, the 20 researchers began an in-depth hunt for what is already out there—searching for data that lends itself to easy analysis, that is regularly collected, easily accessible and is gender-disaggregated.

By the end of the first semester, over 650 hours of coding produced a pretty dim picture for non-OECD countries. Most of the countries researched had little or no data. For countries that reported having accessible data, retrieving it proved exhausting. And when data was available, it usually wasn’t of high quality. Our initially gloomy picture of how few countries are aptly keeping track of gender-disaggregated data also allowed a few countries to shine. 

Students working on the Dominican Republic were happy to report “they hit the jackpot.” Those looking into Sri Lanka were impressed with the level of detail being recorded. Students tasked with researching Kenya were delighted with the promise of a tracking system off to a great start.

In the spirit of making the SDGs truly universal, the research team spent their next semester delving into OECD countries to see how their tracking systems stacked-up. After another four months of intense coding, some clear patterns emerged that have allowed us to categorize a country’s data on women in public service as: too little, too much or just right.

In addition to not having raw data available, if it is overly synthesized, it’s not exactly in keeping with principles of open data.  At the same time, if you need to have advanced software programmes, or have to run complicated statistical analyses to be able to understand what the raw data is saying, it’s also not exactly transparent either. So we’ve been trying to define the “Goldilocks” -- the just enough, the perfect balance between analyzed and adaptable.

What kind of evidence do governments need to make progress?

With 95% of non-OECD countries and 65% of OECD countries falling into the “too little” category, there’s clearly a long way to go. However, we are optimistic that monitoring women’s presence and leadership in public service on a global scale can work. We have found examples of good mechanisms that already exist and that are working in all kinds of contexts.

At the end of this sometimes frustrating exercise, we now have a comprehensive picture of what more needs to be done and where. The SDGs have given the world the mandate to double down on efforts to get women into leading roles in public institutions. Producing the evidence base will hopefully get us there faster. It is long overdue.

Public administration reform Gender equality Governance and peacebuilding Dominican Republic Sustainable Development Goals Core governance functions Sri Lanka Blog post Sustainable development

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