Symposium: A Feminist Statistician’s Perspective on Gendered Limitations of Administrative Data

16 March 2021
Research Innovation

Davina Durgana  | Senior Statistician, Walk Free Foundation

Measurement in modern slavery, like all applied measurement efforts, requires careful consideration of potential measurement bias and error—especially given the primacy of administrative data in most aspects of our work in this space. Not only do researchers need administrative data to learn as much as possible about population demographics to ensure a representative survey can be planned but administrative data are also required for more direct analysis on vulnerability and risk assessments. Gender considerations in administrative data as they pertain to modern slavery research have significant impact on our research and resulting policy.

Discussing the impact of gender on administrative data requires a clear understanding of how administrative data impact our lives and why inclusivity in data collection is critical. Administrative data collection is an exercise in inclusion and exclusion of the key groups that comprise our societies. Accordingly, this process deserves the serious consideration of all key stakeholders to ensure that the data measurement infrastructure is as inclusive as possible. In this article, I will discuss the importance of intentional inclusivity in data systems and data collection processes particularly with respect to gender, race and broader socioeconomic characteristics. I  will also outline the power structures implicit in data collection and measurement standards before summarizing policy and research recommendations that will help us to address these issues throughout all of our research.

Administrative data are a societal snapshot

Administrative data tell the stories of our lives to those that may never meet nor learn any more about the complex contexts in which we live. Accordingly, administrative data are an often overlooked, but critically important component of contemporary research agendas. Administrative data serve as the starting point for our sampling frames for representative surveys to help us determine what final sample population would best represent the population of interest. Administrative data often serve as the sole data source for risk and vulnerability assessments in all domains, given their ubiquitous nature and coverage of many issues. Administrative data are also collected by local, regional, national and international bodies on almost all topics and with varying levels of statistical and data management capacity—from service providers’ records in the field to major statistical bodies at the United Nations.

Feedback loops in administrative data collection and publication are often non-existent, which means that even well-intentioned data collectors and researchers are often unaware of the populations they may be missing or misrepresenting. We, therefore, must be transparent and critical of these challenges and proactive in achieving more gender equitable data so that the policy informed by our work optimizes use of these data sources for the populations we are committed to serving.

For instance, with respect to the LGBTQAI+ community, both lack of consistent standards and even those current standards themselves, as well as  data collection procedures on characteristics of gender identity and sexual orientation deprive us of meaningfully nuanced data on these populations. Without these data, policymakers and advocates are also unable to effectively advocate for the programs and interventions that will best serve these populations. As a solution, the Center for American Progress recommends that systematic data collection efforts should include three distinct but related variables for sexual orientation, namely self-identification, sexual behavior and sexual attraction. For gender identity, administrative data should include both gender identity and sex assigned at birth. Gender expression can include both appearance and mannerisms as distinct but related questions ranging from very feminine to very masculine. Finally, preferred name and gender pronouns should also be asked.

All populations benefit from greater inclusivity and intentionality in data collection and design. In developing evaluations of projects for children globally, UNICEF has created a gender data strategic framework to ensure that administrative systems can collect gender-related data of interest to key stakeholders and provide deeper analysis of these data. Furthermore, to adequately understand broader socioeconomic characteristics, such as education and income, we need the context provided by including gender considerations in administrative systems and analyses. The deep inequities that women and girls face globally along these dimensions, especially regarding income, educational opportunities and the toll of unpaid and often uncounted household labour, significantly inform their realities.

Finally, we must address the implicit power that those who set standards of measurement for administrative data and inform the collection procedures have in ensuring gender is mainstreamed in our data collection efforts from the outset. Gender mainstreaming is advocated by institutions around the world, including UN agencies, to integrate a gender perspective into the design and implementation of policies and measures to promote equality between men and women. There is also significant influence in the definitions data collectors choose to employ and the measurement standards we uphold. The International Conference of Labour Statisticians helps to provide guidance on the key concepts and definitions that statisticians then integrate into their own systems locally. In the specific application of gendered considerations in measurement of modern slavery from administrative data, we must also consider how implicit biases from law enforcement, legislative and prosecutorial standards and public awareness campaigns may result in disproportionate amounts of male or female victims identified and included in resulting datasets.

Overall, administrative data reflects our world at all levels of our societies, and we must act to safeguard this invaluable resource and ensure that it reflects the world as it is for all populations, especially women and girls.  

This article has been prepared by Davina Durgana as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

This piece has been prepared as part of the Delta 8.7 “Gendered Measurements of Modern Slavery” symposium. Read all the responses below:

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