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Illuminating gender statistics by thinking like a journalist

Statistics are often used in the media “as a drunken man uses lamp posts—for support rather than illumination”.

Martin Nicholls, head of strategic communication at the UK’s Office for National Statistics quoted the novelist Andrew Lang as he called on producers of gender statistics to guide their users, including journalists, so that statistics guide (‘illuminate’) them to inspiring new stories rather than just support their existing stories.

Exhorting statisticians to “think like journalists”, he assured them that it’s much easier for statisticians to learn and apply some of the fundamental principles of journalism—to explain their knowledge with simple, clear messages— than it is for journalists, or any other type of user, to try and learn complex statistical principles.

This call for effective communication came as part of a three-day workshop on Disseminating, Communicating and Using Gender Statistics in Kyrgyzstan. The national capacity development event, which took place in Bishkek on 29-31 May, attracted a record number of participants from across the spectrum of user groups, with civil servants, researchers and data journalism students all engaging in the constructive user-producer dialogue that the workshop fostered.

Improving communication with users is increasingly recognized as one of the most pressing areas for development in official statistics, and one that is by no means unique to gender statistics.  But for the question of gender, this challenge is especially pronounced, because of the diversity of issues covered; the many disciplines involved in producing the statistics; the wide variation in statistical literacy among users; and the unconscious bias or even resistance among many potential users of statistics that have a gender dimension.

In the face of these challenges, the producers of statistics about matters such as gender differences in health, work, education or decision-making have to take extra care to present their products in ways that can be easily interpreted. They need to ensure that the statistics will not be misunderstood, and that they provide clear evidence to aid gender-sensitive policy-making to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The workshop showcased UNECE’s toolkit for training users of gender statistics which gives national statistical offices the tools they need to develop their own training materials, ensuring that the capacity development has a lasting effect.

Reflecting on the impacts of the workshop, participants agreed that they felt empowered to use gender statistics to truly illuminate their work, be it media articles, policy design and analysis, or academic research.