How Data Empowers Women

April 2, 2014

On March 4, more than 500 leaders gathered for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and United Nations’ International Women’s Day forum held at the United Nations. This annual conference discusses the private sector’s role in economically empowering women around the world. Surprisingly, a new star arose that day: data. Across industries and sectors, speakers agreed on the complex need for data for a variety of reasons: i) to inform decision-makers on the success or failures of past initiatives, ii) to understand the needs for a group as large and diverse as women, and iii) to continue to show that there is a business case for the private sector to engage in women’s economic empowerment.

One of the resounding themes of the day was the argument from many sectors that empowering women is not simply a good cause, but there is a business imperative. Given that the business case for empowering women is inextricably linked to data, there was much hope and excitement during the day around how we can better use data to empower women, the business case is clear. Women around the world represent more than 65% of all purchasing decisions, including houses, cars, and health. In addition, if women worked at the same rate as men, GDP would expand substantially, estimated at 34% growth in Egypt; 12% in the United Arab Emirates, and 9% in Japan. This business case craves better and more illustrative data to make informed decisions about capturing this growth potential.

Data helped kick off the day in the first panel with Jane Nelson, Chelsea Clinton and Ambassador Melanne Verveer. Chelsea said that “closing the data gap” and using data for good was one of the most important mechanisms to empowering women.  Ambassador Verveer noted that, ultimately, data drives and leads investments, and that the business community is needed to provide data that proves the value and effectiveness of women’s empowerment programs.  At the end of the panel, Chelsea made a plea to the businesses gathered in the room: the Clinton Foundation needs their help to gather more data on the status of women for the No Ceilings Project.  The project hopes to evaluate and share the progress women have made in the 20 years since the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Throughout the day data kept cropping up in conversations. It was discussed how more women need to be involved in data intensive jobs. In a breakout on supplier diversity, the discussion turned to creating databases of potential women-owned businesses.  As Mary Ellen Iskenderian, CEO of Women’s World Banking said: “Big data is helping us show the ‘so what’ for increasing women’s financial inclusion.”

Yet, while more data is needed, we also need to translate this data into the visualizations and stories that compel action.  As Chelsea emphasized in her panel, we need a balance of “stats and stories” to make a case for empowering women that is “compelling and inescapable.” There is plenty of room for the business community to improve the capture and display of data, and it is almost certain that some of its leaders will take up Chelsea’s challenge.

As time goes on, it’s becoming clear that data driven innovation is not just one of the most important drivers of business growth, it’s also a key next step for achieving our environmental and social goals. Making intelligent decisions comes down to understanding the nature of the problems you are trying to solve. When you have data in hand, it becomes easy to find the people and places that need help and to find the interventions which are most effective in helping them.