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To Close the Gender Gap, We Have to Close the Data Gap

What does a typical evening look like in your house? If it’s anything like ours, someone will be reading a book that Amazon recommended, or scanning their personalized newsfeed on Flipboard; and the kids will be listening to tunes on Spotify, or watching YouTube videos.

These sites help make our lives easier — and they do it by tapping into the power of data. Netflix can see what movies we like, DHL can see where millions of packages are, and Nike can see exactly what needs restocking on its shelves and when.

The hard reality is that in too many areas, data doesn’t exist. What’s more — even where it does exist, it’s often sexist.

But in the field of global health and development vast blind spots still remain. This is especially true when it comes to even the most basic information on women and girls — where and when they are born, how many hours they work, if and what they get paid, whether they’ve experienced violence, how they die.

The hard reality is that in too many areas, data doesn’t exist. What’s more — even where it does exist, it’s often sexist. It misses women and girls entirely, or undercounts and undervalues their economic and social contributions to their families, communities, and countries.

These knowledge gaps and biases have two effects.

First, they hamper our ability to advance the cause of gender equality. If a girl’s birth isn’t recorded, she doesn’t have a formal identity — which damages her chances of going to school, and usually means she can’t vote or get a bank account later in life. And what about all the hidden work women and girls do, such as cooking, cleaning, and caring? It may be unpaid, but it’s still work. It may be unrecognized, but it underpins every society and strengthens every economy.

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Second, these gaps and biases reinforce the harmful stereotypes and practices that are grounded in the attitude that women and girls simply don’t matter.

With a better understanding of the way women live their lives, and the specific inequalities, indignities, and injustices that hold them back every day, we can see what needs fixing, whether solutions are working, and what progress is being made. That’s because gathering and analyzing data makes the invisible, visible. Closing the gender gap, requires closing the data gap.

Our Foundation is investing $80 million over the next three years to help do just that. This money will improve the way data is collected — and the way it is used — to provide a fuller, richer picture of the challenges women and girls face, and what can be done to overcome them.

There are already some great examples out there of how data is profoundly helping women and girls — from targeting HIV prevention and treatment to adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa, to making it easier for more women to get family planning advice and contraceptives if they want them.

But imagine what more we could achieve for women and girls if we could tailor programs and policies that meet their specific needs — similar to how Amazon and Netflix give us personalized book and film recommendations.

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I know that data can seem complicated and boring. But it will help save, protect, and transform the lives of millions of women and girls all around the world. It’s that simple — and, in fact, that’s pretty exciting too.

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