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To be Counted When They Count You: Words of Caution for the Gender Data Revolution

In 2015, after the announcement of the SDGs or Sustainable Development Goals, a new global developmental framework through the year 2030, the United Nations described data as the “lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability” for the purpose of realizing these developmental goals. This curious yet key link between these new developmental goals and the use of quantitative data for agenda setting invited a flurry of big data-led initiatives such as but not limited to Data2X, that sought to further strengthen and solidify the relationship between ‘Big Development’ and ‘Big Data.’

One of those SDG goals (Goal 5) prioritizes gender equality and empowerment of women and girls not only as a standalone goal but also as a crucial factor to realizing the other goals. In response, several academic and non-profit initiatives have begun to interpret and conduct data-led gendered development or the “gender data revolution”. As with other data discourses, the gender-data discourse is also one of ‘speed’, charging ahead using a variety of quantitative and visualization approaches to reveal and eventually solve gendered problems of development.

These interventions also invite some classical critical questions: who is setting the agenda for the gender data revolution and who are its imagined subjects? How are questions of participation and asymmetries of power in developmental research being addressed? How does the gender data revolution address the situatedness as well as incompleteness of data records in the Global South (where most sites of intervention are)? Speaking specifically to the theme of this special issue (‘cross-cultural feminist technologies’), this paper demonstrates how the welfarist discourse of data-led gender development is, in fact, assembled through the overwhelming enumeration of female-identifying bodies in the Global South.

The paper offers critical historical insights from the fields of international development, anthropology, and postcolonial history to caution against both, the possible harms of gender disaggregated datafication as well as the consequences of non-participatory datafication of women, the subjects of the gender data revolution.

Read the full paper here.

This study was undertaken as part of the Big Data for Development network supported by the International Development Research Centre, Canada, and is shared under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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Noopur Raval

Student, researcher, Wikipedia enthusiast