“I don’t want to invite men into my conversations. It’s not up to me to carry that burden as well. It’s up to men to show up and join the conversation.” By the tone of this quote, one would think that this was said at a feminist rally advocating for men to show up and do better. Particularly in the United States where the #MeToo movement has given women a safe space to have a voice but is being met with resistance at a political level, that is both unsurprising and deeply horrifying. But this rousing feminist cry was actually said by Hera Hussain of Open Contracting Partnership at an international conference on open data. So why was Hussain making such a hard-hitting feminist statement at a data conference? Open and accessible data can help us identify gaps in gender equity and create the evidence-base for better policies in anything that you could imagine from literacy rates to video game users. But one area where open data is poised to make a huge impact is in government contracting. Governments spend one fifth of their budgets on procuring services and goods from the private sector, but women-led businesses only supply 1 percent of this market. This means the market is missing the innovation, creativity and most importantly, the perspective of women-led businesses. Data allows us to see women. That might seem like an odd statement. We see women every day. They make up about half of our global population. But if women aren’t counted and aren’t accounted for in the data, then policy recommendations will be made without women’s consideration. This is particularly true in government contracting, an estimated US$9.5 trillion industry. Open data can foster radical systematic change. First, the industry needs to collect, publish, and monitor gender disaggregated data especially in areas such as procurement to promote women led businesses. Governments can mitigate gender gaps in procurement by diversifying supply chains and contracting with small to medium enterprises and women led businesses. Many believe there is no bias in government contracting but having the data to prove this bias can be powerful in creating systemic change. Lack of clarity over opportunities can be a serious hindrance to entry into the public sector for most businesses. This can be even worse for women-run businesses where other structural inequalities can exacerbate existing barriers to entry. Second, the industry needs to do more with women-led business. Women should have an equal shot at doing business with the government and contributing to the public sector. By procuring more with women-led businesses through public policy reforms and open contracting data insights, governments and state-owned enterprises can tackle market bias proactively by encouraging the private sector to do the same. Many countries such as the Dominican Republic, Korea, Indonesia, South Africa, and the United States have brought in policies to limit competition in government procurement in favor of targeting women-owned businesses. In the United States, 5% of federal contracts are planned to go to eligible women-owned small business to boost women’s presence in male dominated fields. In 2013, a survey of women business owner contractors found that “fully 61% find the program useful, including 28% who find it very or extremely useful. With this playing field-leveling policy, more and more women are finding federal procurement success.” Similarly in Albania, women-led businesses only account for 5% of tenders and yet have a significantly higher procurement efficiency rate. Since January 2014, Korea has also designated a 5% target for women-led contractors alongside simplification of contracting procedures, which is delivering favorable results. We know women are under-represented in data. Not only do the numbers show us that women are not participating in society at the same rate as men, they are often left out of data considerations in the first place. Even the way that that data is collected shows a gender gap. Globally, only 29% of researchers are women. But there are solutions and the government contracting world is ready and able to turn the tide for gender equity. Inequality affects every aspect of our lives and access to usable, open data helps us quantify these inequalities so that problems can be addressed.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.