The economic empowerment of women is vital to global development. If gender gaps in labour markets were completely closed, as much as $28 trillion could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.

This would make a critical contribution both to economic growth and to poverty reduction. But women’s economic empowerment is also the key to achieving gender equality and building the inclusive and prosperous societies that are at the heart of the global ambition reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Those goals, and particularly SDG 8 on good jobs and economic growth, will only be achieved if women around the world are able to take a full and equal place in the economic life of their countries.

That’s why the Global Gender Gap report remains so important: by capturing trends in some of the most important aspects of women’s economic empowerment - in terms of participation, remuneration and advancement - the Index gives us the tools we need both to understand the barriers and to track our progress in overcoming them. Of course, data alone will not deliver the kind of global development we all want to see. But without it, we will act as if we are blindfolded.

Image: World Economic Forum

Girls and young women left furthest behind

For girls and young women, economic empowerment is vital to improving not only their future work prospects, but also their long-term health, their self-confidence and their social status. Crucially, empowering girls and young women can be pivotal in preventing poverty being passed on from one generation to the next.

Yet despite the evidence of the benefits of investing in girls - for themselves, for their families and for their communities - girls and young women around the world continue to face widespread discrimination.

Young women face particular problems in the job market and they lag behind on virtually every labour force measure, including participation, earnings, productivity, job quality and career mobility.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 42% of young women are not in education, training or employment. Where young women in the developing world are in work, their jobs are likely to be vulnerable, informal and unprotected. They may be underpaid, or not paid at all.

Yet, for all we do know about the plight and potential of girls, the specific problems they face are often missing from the official figures. In most countries, data are not regularly being collected for more than half of the official indicators for the Global Goals.

We don’t count how many girls’ educations are cut short by early marriage, pregnancy or violence; we don’t even know exactly how many give birth before they turn 15, let alone what kind of work they do, for how long, and whether they get paid for it. It will be vital to understand the position of the next generation, and the barriers they face, if real change for women and the world is to be achieved.

Complex problems call for new alliances

Real change also needs collaboration, often between unlikely allies: new partnerships, with businesses working with NGOs and governments alike, which can break down silos, such as those that stand between education systems and labour markets.

The World Economic Forum’s ‘Shaping the Future of Education, Gender and Work’ illustrates how deep-seated disadvantages can be overcome if all parties come together to find new ways to nurture talent, rethink education and develop skills in order to bring us closer to gender parity and boost employment opportunities.

But the barriers to economic empowerment faced by girls and young women run deep, rooted in their position within society. Girls and young women are held back by harmful social norms, by lack of access to education and training, by inadequate reproductive health resources, and by the all-too-real risk of gendered violence.

Multi-layered problems call for holistic responses, like Plan International’s work in Uganda to support sexually-exploited young women gain livelihood opportunities through a combination of vocational training, sexual and reproductive health education and mentoring.

Counting the Invisible

Such initiatives are vital. But if they are to be scaled up, and their impact effectively tracked, we need nothing less than a data revolution, also built on collaboration across countries and across sectors. Girls and young women in particular are too often absent from the data: they remain invisible to policy makers simply because they do not show up in the numbers.

If we’re going to be able to overcome the barriers to their economic empowerment, we need to identify new sources of data that better reflect the lives of girls and young women. In part that is simply ensuring that the data that is already collected sufficiently recognises girls as a group: not just how many children are in school, but how many girls are; not just how many women are in work but how many young women are. But we also need data that reflects more closely the lives of girls as individuals and that means more qualitative data: asking girls and women directly about what they do with their time and what they worry about most.

The Global Gender Gap report is an important evidence source, and shows what can be achieved. We will need more work of this kind if we are to deliver the change we want to see.

As part of a new independent partnership to track and accelerate girls and women’s SDG progress, Plan International is taking another important step forward in enhancing data, alongside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, KPMG as well as key civil society and global south organisations. This partnership will create an independent accountability platform, utilizing alternative and qualitative data in addition to the official statistics, to reflect the real lives of girls and young women while empowering them to deliver evidence based change.

Such initiatives are important tools in the task of ensuring that policy and practice respond to real needs and opportunities, and provide richer evidence of whether governments are truly meeting their commitments to equality and empowerment.

Without more gender-sensitive data to inform the decisions that can transform their lives, girls and young women will continue to be left behind.