Within gender equality circles, the maxim “what gets measured gets managed” has launched a thousand feminist data ships chronicling the extent of women’s inequality, looking at everything from the gender pay gap, to rates of violence against women, to women’s lack of representation in the upper ranks of power, to the so-called chores gap.
The maxim is so inextricably linked as a justification for various data gathering exercises that we hear it, and variations on the theme, time and time again.
When launching the report, “Gender Equity Insights 2018: Australia’s Gender Pay Gap”, Workplace Gender Equality Agency Director Libby Lyons said, “What gets measured gets managed”.
Last year, Maryam Monset, the Canadian Minister for the Status of Women, took to the stage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit to say, “What is not measured does not get done”.
And also last year, when Labour moved to restore funding for the Time Use Survey, which, among other things offers a clearer picture of the amount of time women and men spend doing unpaid caring and household work, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Women Tanya Plibersek invoked the legendary feminist economist Marilyn Waring, who famously said, “What we don’t count, counts for nothing”.
As a self-proclaimed “gender equality data geek”, I have always shared my esteemed fellow equality travellers’ belief that data — the understanding of the scale of a problem and the placing of a numerical value representing what is lost or gained — would lead to action. And action would lead to change.
In my twenty-plus years as an “equality sector worker” as I was recently dubbed in the press (I prefer “professional feminist”), I have produced numerous weighty tomes to that end, including several Sex and Power Reports for the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission looking at the lack of women’s representation in the senior ranks of almost every industry, research for Our Watch looking at media representations of violence against women, including a granular appraisal of the extent to which “victim blaming” still occurs, and a definitive snapshot on where Australia is in terms of workplace gender equality for Women’s Agenda.
But recently, I have had a crisis of faith.
Confessions of a “feminist librarian”
As I was ploughing through Rebecca Traister’s excellent treatise on the transformative power of women’s anger, Good and Mad, I was particularly struck by this anecdote about legendary American feminists Flo Kennedy and Gloria Steinem, who used to travel the USA together as speaking partners in the 1970’s.
One day Kennedy, famous for what some have dubbed “verbal karate”, pulled Steinem aside and ticked her off for being too reliant on facts and figures to prove that women were discriminated against:
“Honey, when you are lying in a ditch with a truck on your ankle, you do not send someone to the library to find out how much the truck weighs. You get it off!”
First, I laughed so hard I think I frightened my children (it was the weekend).
Then, I had an overwhelming feeling that Flo was also speaking directly to me, by her measure a bit of a “feminist librarian”. And I took the point.
At last I admitted something to myself that I have long been loath to acknowledge. What gets measured does (not necessarily) get managed – not unless we collectively demand it. And there’s the rub.
When data is met with inaction, or a collective shrug
I have slowly, and very reluctantly, come to this conclusion over the last few years, as I have seen one weighty data set after another, all making an undeniable “case for change”, fade into the background or be greeted with a collective shoulder shrug.
In her recently released book, On Violence, Natasha Stott Despoja notes a 2015 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report estimating the combined social, health and economic cost of violence against women in Australia is $21.7 billion per year and increasing.
“I would have thought the business case for preventing this violence, if nothing else, would be compelling for our leaders,” writes Stott-Despoja. Indeed, I too would have thought. But can we honestly say that has been the case?
Upon publication of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s annual scorecard late last year, which noted a record number of employers are now examining their pay data and discovering gaps, WGEA’s Director Libby Lyons also noted a significant “action gap”. Only 40 percent of those who gathered enough data to identify if they had a pay gap actually did anything with that information. Only 40 percent! Certainly, not a shining example of measurement equal management.
Also late last year saw the publication of the Australian Human Rights Commissions fourth (yes fourth) survey since 2003 chronicling rates of sexual harassment in Australia, “Everyone’s Business”. And while the AHRC has published a variation of this report every four or so years since 2003 alongside recommendations for action, the percentage of women who report experiencing sexual harassment according to the legal definition has increased from 41% to 61%. Yes, increased awareness, particularly brought about since #MeToo, is partly driving higher rates of reporting, but I would have thought meaningful action on the back of any of the previous three surveys would have helped stem the tide.
Trading the library card for a protest sign
We have to face the reality that while we are measuring quite a lot, we are not necessarily managing the problems — management is not an inevitable outcome of measurement.
And at the risk of saying something controversial, in some cases, we have allowed ourselves to be sent off to the library again in pursuit of yet another, hopefully this time even more convincing, set of data, rather than to the picket lines and other disruptive forms of action that demand change.
The increased data and investment in this data is certainly not a bad thing, and in some ways a measure of progress as it indicates these issues are now firmly on the agenda. I certainly don’t want to argue against the continued collection of gender equality data that can drive effective, evidence-based policy.
But in 2019, this feminist librarian is promising to spend a little less time figuring out how much that metaphorical truck weighs and a little more time figuring out how to get it off.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica