This year’s International Women’s Day theme “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change”, puts emphasis on the need to look at gender equality as a means to progress.
We still have a long way to go on women’s rights. Last year, Malaysia ranked 101 out of 149 in the Global Gender Gap Index. Out of 18 countries in East Asia and the Pacific, we ranked 13th, falling behind countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Mongolia and Cambodia. It reflected our inability to take a stance on issues affecting women, despite making up approximately half of the population.
For centuries, the lives and experiences of men have often been generalised to represent the whole of humanity. Many research studies and products have been designed around data collected from men. However, similar data on women are often absent. This “silence” on female-specific data is known as the gender data gap.
It is important to conduct research on the female experiences as their lived realities, social environments, challenges, physiology (to a certain extent), and resulting impact, differ greatly from that of men. Therefore, strategies and policies to address their needs must differ as well. The gender data gap is widespread and could be found across almost sectors including technology, science, architecture, social sciences and economics, to name a few.
For example, a European organization testing car safety features for consumers recently acknowledged the use of scaled-down male dummies to represent women. However, women display different physiological characteristics compared to men, with different muscle mass distribution, lower bone density and body sway.
These differences are crucial when recording injury risks in car crashes, but are not being captured in official data. Are women more at risk of serious injury in a car crash compared to men? We don’t know.
As a whole, Malaysia has a poor public data landscape. Data is often lacking, outdated or simply inaccessible. It is a key barrier in pushing for action in many policy areas. Even when data exists, it is often too basic, with little sub-category dis aggregation, pattern analysis and depth.
The gender data gap has deep implications in policy-making. In terms of women’s labour, little is done to ensure that national household surveys can measure and capture the totality and value of care work, housework and emotional labour (e.g. mediating conflicts within the household) that women do but goes unpaid.
In Malaysia, this has resulted in such surveys capturing approximately 75 percent of men’s economic activities but no more than 30 percent of women’s activities on an international level. This is not reflective of the total labour women do and risk overlooking their impact and contributions to society.
The gender data gap could also result in gaps within social protection schemes. In European countries, older women living alone are found to be more likely to fall into poverty than older men, with 64 percent of older poor consisting of women. Similar data examining the needs and vulnerability of specific female populations (such as pregnant teenagers) leading to specific downward mobility risks are scarce or simply do not exist in Malaysia.
These data gaps also exist in healthcare. Due to gender stereotypes and safety concerns, girls are less likely to exercise and play outside than boys, and are less likely to engage in physical activities in public spaces (such as walking in parks). These activity inequalities are not recorded nor explored in Malaysia.
There continue to be significant gaps in the specific health needs of women in Malaysia. This includes clinical research data on endometriosis, menstruation (e.g. the needs, pains, management of period and period poverty), and contraception among younger women. These areas are often underfunded, dismissed and unexplored, resulting in a poorer understanding of women’s quality of life and dignity in Malaysia.
Moving forward requires the immediate plugging of these gender data gaps. Urgent work must be done to study the needs of different women across different topic areas.
Data2x, an international organization working to address these gaps, found that areas such as employment mobility, access to childcare and internet among women are lacking in its entirety. It also found that data on gender-based violence and mental health generally suffered from a lack in complexity and granularity as a result of insufficient disaggregation.
Our government, corporations and researchers must work together to identify these gaps in local data and take measures to explore and deep-dive into these topics.
Failing to capture the lived realities and person hood of women will continue to jeopardize their advancement in society, pushing back on social, economic and health advancement. Until the gender data gap is addressed, women will not have true equality. They will continue to pay the price of the gender data gap with their dignity, well-being and even their lives.