Inspirational Woman Interview: Emily Courey Pryor


Emily Courey Pryor is the Executive Director Data2X, hosted at the United Nations Foundation. She worked previously with Gilead Sciences, an innovator in HIV treatment, where she managed the corporate giving program and Gilead Foundation. Early in her career, Emily worked for the American Red Cross National Headquarters on disaster relief and international programs. She also serves as a founding Board member of One By One , a US-based NGO focused on treatment and prevention of obstetric fistula. Emily received her MA in Public Health from the University of Michigan, and her undergraduate degree from the University of Florida.

You are the Executive Director at Data2X, which seeks to improve the quality, availability, and use of gender data to improve policy, strategy, and decision-making. Could you tell us more about what Data2X is and what you mean by ‘gender data’?

Emily Courey Pryor: Data2X, named for the power women and girls have to multiply progress in our society, is a collaborative technical and advocacy platform, working to promote gender data collection and use across a number of issue areas.

“Gender data” refers to data in three broad categories: 1 – sex disaggregated data, so data that affects men and women, but needs to be disaggregated to know the status of girls/women – both in absolute levels and relative to boys/men (e.g. school enrollment rates for boys and girls) and 2 – Data that applies only to women, as defined by their sex (e.g. uterine cancer rates) and 3 – Data on issues that may affect women and men differently, or which may be connected to social expectations or constraints (e.g. economic roles, intimate partner violence).

We lack data on several aspects of women’s and girls’ lives; how can we achieve gender equality without it?

From your experiences, what are some of the biggest gender data gaps, and why do they exist?

Emily Courey Pryor: When Data2X was formed, we did a mapping of global gender data gaps across five domains – health, education, economic opportunity, political participation and human security. We found 28 gender data gaps across these areas, some more glaring than others. A stark area of data gaps is in the arena of women’s participation in and contributions to the economy, as well as their political participation. Comparatively speaking, data on women & girls are stronger within education and health sectors, and weaker on economic, political, and human security topics. In our view this is due to a pervasive and persistent bias that these topics are not ‘women’s issues’.

Some gaps exist because of bias in data collection methods, such as surveying male heads of household on all economic activities (which could obscure the woman’s activities). Or structuring surveys in a way that do not easily facilitate a woman choosing her simultaneous activities, for instance: domestic duties that are unpaid, sewing/piece work from the home for pay, child care that is unpaid.  All of these taken together could be how a woman spends her time, and all have an impact on the economy. And yet they are not adequately counted.

Other gaps persist because of the difficulty in gathering information on highly sensitive issues, like sexual and gender-based violence, or mental health. Not only are these topics that are hard to survey (due to stigma, or privacy) but they are also more expensive – they require a different level of training and expertise than surveying on a more straightforward or non-controversial topic.

The process of gathering data is not gender neutral. We measure what we value, and sometimes issues that affect more marginalized groups are left out in data collection efforts, even through unintentional bias. Data2X has been working to close gender data gaps through building a set of ‘gender data partnerships’ with data producers and users – including UN agencies, governments, civil society, academia, and the private sector.

What are some of your main research findings through these partnerships?

 Emily Courey Pryor: 

  • Big Data & Gender: Just this month, we launched a new report, “Big Data and the Well-being of Women and Girls.” This work demonstrates how digital data sources – social media posts, satellite imagery, credit card records and cell phone records – can enhance standard data collection methods to fill gender data gaps and capture overlooked aspects of girls’ and women’s lives, from their mental health to their economic mobility.
  • Women’s Work & Employment: Remember the example I gave earlier about how we count women’s economic contributions? This partnership – with the International Labour Organization, the World Bank, and the Food & Agricultural Organization is working on just that – focusing on how surveys are designed to measure women’s economic productivity, and piloting gender-inclusive survey questions which better capture how women contribute to the economy, both through paid and unpaid work.
  • Gender Data in Displacement Settings: Women and girls have specific and different needs from boys and men, which is intensified within humanitarian emergencies. We are working with JIPS (the Joint IDP Profiling Service) to improve gender data collection and profiling practices in displacement settings to improve gendered analysis of – and effective response to – humanitarian crises.

You were a founding Board member for One By One , a US-based NGO focused on treatment and prevention of obstetric fistula. Can you share with us some of your experiences with One By One, and your main takeaways on the issue of obstetric fistula?

Emily Courey Pryor: One By One was founded in 2002 by two Seattle women, Heidi Breeze Harris and Katya Matanovic, and continues to this day – led by an amazing team in Seattle, Kenya, and Tanzania, and dedicated volunteers and donors.

Obstetric fistula is a tragic childbirth injury resulting from a mother’s prolonged labor without access to formal medical care or a C-section. The baby is trapped in the birth canal for too long, and the pressure of the baby’s head against the tissues in the birth canal for so long cuts off blood supply to the tissues, which causes them to rot.  In most cases, the baby does not survive and the mother is left with a hole to her bladder or rectum, which leaves her leaking urine (and sometimes feces) for the rest of her life. She is typically ostracized, unable to work, or to be with her family or community. It affects the most marginalized women and girls – living in extreme poverty, far from medical care. There is a surgical treatment to repair fistula, which One By One, UNFPA, and other organizations are working to provide. One By One, with their partners, have also built a fantastic holistic program which includes fistula outreach & education, supportive recovery and reintegration care.

Obstetric fistula is also a topic on which we have incredibly weak data – we do not know the full extent of women and girls affected (the estimate is 2 million but that was the estimate when I started working on this in 2002!). Why the data gap? First – there is a data collection challenge because it is such a stigmatized topic – how can you account for the number of women and girls suffering with fistula if it is something people do not want to talk about? Second – given limited funds for development data overall – would funds naturally flow to a topic that affects only a certain marginalized group of women and girls, in very resource limited settings, when it is already known that even absent those barriers, it would be difficult to collect? Practicality says…probably not.  It requires focused advocacy and education.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Emily Courey Pryor: Because equal opportunities and shared responsibility should (in an ideal world) be an assumed part of our humanity. Also…it has been very well documented that empowering women leads to a long list of societal benefits. Women’s ability to benefit others with their empowerment should certainly not be the only motivator for this work, but there is undoubtedly a link: when women’s lives are better, a community’s outcomes improve.

What advice do you have for individuals interested in pursuing careers in international development research?

Emily Courey Pryor: Stay focused, work hard, be humble, be kind. Respect people’s time (regardless of whether they are above you or below you in a reporting line!). When you find a great boss, recognize that this has a huge impact on your overall level of happiness and professional development, and act accordingly. Remember those lessons for when you are the boss (or your own boss). If you’re a researcher or a statistician, start thinking about production and use of gender data – question your assumptions, those inherent biases. If you’re on the program or advocacy side, advocate for the highest quality gender data, avoid the temptation to use the most dire (but methodologically suspect) data to bolster your case. Reliable, accurate, representative data can be a tool that helps us know where to focus our energy, to figure out when to course correct, and to celebrate our accomplishments.  As you start your careers, help us push for it!

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to women’s issues and international development?

Emily Courey Pryor: Check out Global Daily for a great news resource on a variety of development topics. And DevEx for the development journalism viewpoint (and an active jobs board!). The International Center for Research on Women is a top resource in the field, as is UN Women’s website. The Center for Global Development’s Views from the Center blog and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women Around the World Blog are always interesting.

Of course, don’t miss Data2X’s website for all things gender data!  And watch our video to get a better feel for what we’re all about. If you’re really into this topic of gender data, here is a seminal piece, by two incredible experts (and wonderful humans), Mayra Buvinic & Ruth Levine.

In the book category: right now, I’m reading Originals by Adam Grant. It’s taking me a while… not a comment on the excellence of the book – quite the contrary; I love it! – but I don’t have a lot of reading time with work and two small kids (ages 4 and 2). Which leads to my second book recommendation: Grace for President, by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by LeYuen Pham. I read it to my kids, and every time the ending chokes me up. And since they like to read the same books over and over –  meaning I’ve read it at least 137 times by now – that’s saying something.

I’ll leave you with a keynote from this year’s South by Southwest, by Jessica Shortall. Full disclosure that she’s a dear friend, a fellow working mom, and that this is not expressly about international development. But it’s about data, love, inclusion, and bridges. Enjoy.

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