Beyond the Data Set: Empowering Tomorrow’s Leaders of Gender Data

Shaida Badiee November 09, 2021

Discussions of gender data often lead quickly to technical jargon—proper disaggregation, survey enumerator training, biases in survey design, discriminatory algorithms, etc. Foreign Policy’s Her Power Summit, which took place this week, reminded us that while understanding these complex issues is of utmost importance, it is equally important to recognize the leaders charting the course towards a more data-equitable world, and the barriers those changemakers face.

Shaida Badiee, Senior Advisor to Data2X and Managing Director of Open Data Watch, joined Emily Sharpe of the World Wide Web Foundation on day two of the Summit to discuss their professional and personal experiences working as women in the data and technology field, and what’s needed to harness the sector for gender equity.

Before her days at the World Bank, Data2X, or Open Data Watch, Shaida Badiee was a professor at the School of Engineering at the George Washington University and ran the school’s computer center in the early 1970s. In a major inconvenience to women in the department, the only restrooms in the building were for men, forcing Shaida and her colleagues to go off-site to use the women’s facilities. The absence of these facilities in the School of Engineering itself was not an architectural oversight: it was a symbol of women’s underrepresentation and the exclusive environment of the department.

Despite the progress in gender equality—and the construction of additional restrooms—made since then, women are still vastly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field. Fewer than 30 percent of the world’s scientific researchers are women, leaving tremendous potential untapped and breakthrough innovations unturned. At the national statistical office level, where much of our work lives, less than a quarter of top leadership positions are occupied by women.

Efforts are underway to rectify these inequities, and data must play a central role. When we disaggregate data by sex, age, disability, ethnicity, and other characteristics, we glean insights previously left uncounted and hold powerful information to create change.

But in order to diversify leadership, access to proper education and training is needed as today’s youth will become tomorrow’s leaders. Unfortunately, research has shown that the gender stereotyping of STEM subjects such as statistics and technology has a direct link to fewer girls choosing the subjects in both high school and secondary education. As part of the newly unveiled, first-of-its-kind National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, the Biden-Harris Administration will invest in STEM education and training for women and girls through foreign assistance, investments in research and development, and education exchanges. The plan outlines ambitious goals to help women achieve parity with men in the United States and abroad by addressing the primary obstacles to women’s advancement, including closing the gender data gap in STEM.

This effort, powered with global and local ones, will jumpstart careers and craft future Chief Statisticians, data scientists, or chief technology officers—all of which will continue to impact our gender data ecosystem. 

While education will plant the seeds, a supportive workplace will enable new leaders in the field to grow and ward off a “leaky pipeline” of talent that characterizes the field—and role models and mentors will play a key role. Mentorship can combat lack of diversity by providing support and advocacy to those at different stages of their careers, and highlighting professional growth opportunities to move up the ranks. The Gender Data Network, an initiative between PARIS21Data2X, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), and Open Data Watch, is rooted in this belief that there is power in partnership. The GDN connects its network members to the wider global family of organizations focused on gender data to build skills, foster collaborative relationships and inspire future leaders within the statistical offices.

While the technical aspects of our work are necessary, we do not forget the human capacity required to achieve our goals of better data for women and girls. As we strive to recover and regain losses brought on by COVID-19, we must ensure women’s leadership and diversity is at the forefront of any economic recovery—especially in the field of data and statistics.

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