Between glass ceilings and glass walls

October 21, 2020


The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the importance of the public sector in responding to emergencies in an inclusive and equitable way and highlighted existing gaps. The systemic lack of women’s participation in policy decisions, for example, often means that governments are ill-equipped to meet women’s specific needs during this time. This will likely only be compounded with the shrinking of public space due to the responses to the pandemic, which may have a longer-term impact in terms of representation in decision-making.

As women continue to hit glass ceilings and glass walls that prevent their equal participation, tracking these trends and providing evidence is critical to marking progress, informing effective policies and promoting accountability. It also allows us to map organizational barriers and understand cultures and opportunities for change. While data to track gender equality in public institutions is not an end to itself, it’s a means of illustrating the successes and challenges in the progress of equal and meaningful participation of women in decision-making.

These issues will be explored in depth next year at the 65th session of the Commission on Status of Women (CSW), which will look at the theme of, “Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.” In the lead up to this event, experts recently came together to explore some of the themes, including those related to data gaps and challenges on measuring women’s effective participation and its role in measuring progress of the 2030 Agenda

At UNDP, we see a great demand across the 170 countries where we work for efforts related to governance and strengthening the inclusiveness and responsiveness of public institutions. This is critical to creating some of the structural changes needed to address the deep inequalities and injustices exposed by COVID-19. Along with improving better quality data, programmes focused on addressing barriers facing women’s representation in decision-making, whether as frontline health workers, police, staff in public institutions, or as judges and registrars, is a fundamental first step to promoting more inclusive, responsive and effective governance.

As part of these efforts, UNDP has been working with the University of Pittsburg’s Gender Inequality Research Lab on the Gender in Public Administration (GEPA) initiative over the last five years to develop a database on representation of women in public administration. Trends will be analysed and a global report on Gender Equality in Public Administration is planned for early 2021. This database also helps to lay the groundwork for the collection of data for the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets on responsive and inclusive decision-making and the representativeness of decision-making positions.

As the custodian agency for the SDG indicators measuring representation in public service (16.7.1b) and the judiciary (16.7.1c), UNDP is supporting countries to produce the data and monitor and report on progress, including in relation to representation in the public service and the judiciary. Data for these indicators are meant to be disaggregated by sex, as well as across age groups, population groups, and disabilities to enable a better understanding of intersectionality.

As UNDP worked to finalize its methodology for these two indicators, we observed that:

·         It is necessary not just to consider decision-making positions, but to also understand where decision-making power lies at different levels. For SDG 16.7.1c on the judiciary, for example, it was not sufficient to look just at the position of judges, but we also need to include representation in terms of registrars across different levels of courts. Similarly, for the public service it was important to unpack the different categories of decision-making.

·         In order to have a holistic understanding of women’s participation in decision-making, it is important to complement data on 16.7.1 (on representation) with 16.7.2, which captures people’s perception of the extent to which public decision-making is inclusive and responsive. This helps to measure whether people perceive that they have a say in decision-making processes, which is often correlated with trust in and legitimacy of state actors; levels of political participation, including voting in elections; and people’s overall life satisfaction.

The good news is that data collection and reporting on SDG 16.7.1b and c will begin next year. While there is still a long way to go before it becomes widely available, UNDP is working closely with national statistics offices to strengthen the collection of data to effectively measure participation of women leadership and decision-making.