Empowering women through data-driven insights: AidData’s Gender in Development Research Symposium

The symposium builds on AidData’s Gender Equity in Development Initiative, which has mobilized $2.3m in funding for gender-focused research.

July 10, 2024
Wanqi (Angie) Zhu
Participants at AidData’s Gender in Development Symposium at William & Mary pose in the conference room. Photo by Samantha Hughes, used with permission.

Participants at AidData’s Gender in Development Symposium at William & Mary pose in the conference room. Photo by Samantha Hughes, used with permission.

Earlier this summer, AidData hosted an interdisciplinary Gender in Development Research Symposium at William & Mary, bringing together researchers to share their gender-related research and foster cross-cutting collaborations. The symposium aimed to build a research community on campus that extends beyond AidData, integrating knowledge and methods across disciplines to explore gender equity in development.

The need for better research into how gender interacts with development is great. Approximately 2.4 billion women worldwide are denied equal economic opportunities, while legal barriers persist in 178 countries, hindering women’s full economic and social participation. Gender-focused research is key to understanding the unique challenges women face in developing contexts. It helps uncover systemic inequalities, informs better policy-making, and ultimately contributes to more equitable and sustainable development outcomes. Yet, despite this importance, it has been difficult to operationalize and measure gender-related outcomes, gender dynamics, and gender inequalities in development research. 

Recognizing this, AidData established a Gender Equity in Development Initiative in 2022. Our initiative aims to tackle these challenges by leveraging AidData’s expertise in various domains to improve both the accuracy and cost-effectiveness of measuring women's economic empowerment. Over the last two years, we’ve mobilized $2.3 million in funding for 9 gender-focused projects involving nearly a third of AidData’s staff. 

| Read AidData’s Gender Equity in Development concept note

Top priorities for the initiative have included enhancing data collection methods; exploring satellite imagery and remotely sensed data as comprehensive measurements; understanding intra-household gender dynamics; studying the impact of gendered farming experiences on crop yields; analyzing policies related to women’s property rights; identifying and reducing barriers to women’s employment; and examining women’s mobility in urban spaces. 

Seeking to grow on our initial success, AidData recognized that answering gender-related research questions requires an interdisciplinary approach. To that end, we held a symposium on May 9th aimed at connecting researchers at William & Mary to cultivate future collaborations. The symposium brought together experts in development economics, geospatial impact evaluations, machine learning, remote sensing, and policy research from various W&M departments such as Economics, Kinesiology, Sociology, and the Global Research Institute, including AidData and the Digital Inclusion and Governance Lab. Our aim was simple yet powerful: to bridge the gaps between disciplines and unite scholars with a shared passion for exploring gender in development.

The symposium delved into gender in development research across three themes—measurement, technology, and health—with key takeaways below. 

Measurement and gender

AidData researchers Rachel Sayers, Divya Mathew, and Jessica Wells presented on both challenges and innovations in measuring gender-related outcomes. Sayers, a Research Scientist, highlighted ongoing research into gender-related biases on agricultural plots using geospatial data and agricultural survey responses in Ghana. Mathew, a Senior Policy Specialist, examined the disparity between rhetorical commitments and actual priorities in gender data. She showed that countries like Canada, Germany, Sweden, and the U.S. spend billions on development projects aimed at gender equity, yet they often neglect to bridge gender and data in their projects. Wells, a Research Scientist, shared findings on the prevalence of school-related gender-based violence in seven countries, taken from AidData’s work with Together for Girls and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (Supported by USAID’S Higher Education Solutions Network, the project saw AidData researchers combine high-quality data from the Violence Against Children and Youth Surveys (VACS) with georeferenced datasets and then apply advanced statistical and geospatial techniques to investigate the relationship between schooling and violence against children). Collectively, their presentations highlighted the persistent lack of gender-disaggregated data, the challenges of collecting gender-related data, and the need for innovative approaches to measure and interpret gender-related outcomes.

Technology and gender

Andrew Dustan, Shreya Bhattacharya, and Seth Goodman led a discussion on technology in gender-related research, exploring the impact of digital advancements on gender dynamics. Dustan, an Assistant Professor of Economics at William & Mary, explored gendered beliefs around IT ability within peer groups in Panama; Bhattacharya, a Senior Research Analyst at the Digital Inclusion and Governance Lab (DIGLab) at William & Mary, investigated how smartphone ownership influences women's economic empowerment in Malawi; and Goodman, a Senior Research Scientist at AidData, analyzed gender biases present in AI applications to understand household poverty in Ghana. Their presentations illustrated how digital tools and innovations can be harnessed to address gender disparities, while also emphasizing the importance of examining the biases embedded in technological solutions.

Health and gender

Reya Farber, Scott Ickes, and Julius Odhiambo examined the intersectionality of gender with other dimensions of identity and analyzed health-related challenges for women, particularly those in marginalized communities. Farber, an Assistant Professor of Sociology, discussed the unique health struggles for transgender people experiencing tropical diseases. Ickes, an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology, evaluated the feasibility of lactation support for working mothers in Kenya. Odhiambo, an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology, highlighted the role of women in ensuring timely childhood vaccinations among the Maasai. Although their presentations tackled very different research questions in separate country contexts, all featured a complex interplay between gender, health, and other social determinants—emphasizing the need for comprehensive health interventions that consider these intersections.

The Gender in Development Research Symposium was an important step forward in addressing the challenges of gender in development research, but sustaining collaboration with other researchers to produce policy-relevant research will be essential to drive meaningful change. Going forward, AidData’s Gender Equity in Development Initiative will seek more collaborations across disciplines, with external partners, and on William & Mary’s campus that can bring diverse perspectives and share innovative methodologies for gender-focused research.

Wanqi (Angie) Zhu is a Junior Data Analyst in AidData’s Research & Evaluation Unit. She supports the team in creating household- and village-level surveys, overseeing fieldwork, analyzing data, and managing randomized controlled trials, geospatial impact evaluations (GIEs), and other research projects.