‘It's time to address inequality in a better way: by the numbers’

Though the fight for equality has been going on for decades, progress in certain areas has been disappointingly slow. From the low number of female professors and researchers in academia to the accessibility of education in developing countries, research data shows large gaps in progress. Women are stuck, and the only way ahead is with more data and experimentation, argues Natascha Wagner, professor of Development Economics, in her inaugural lecture at Radboud University on October 6.

According to Wagner, ‘there are many issues affecting only or mainly women, and unfortunately we are running into ‘gender fatigue’ for some of these matters. Certain concerns have been affecting society for so long that they don't generate enough noise anymore, while new concerns affecting smaller groups are more attention-grabbing in the short-term. It's time to start looking at the numbers, use the data, and tackle the big challenges.’ 

In her inaugural lecture, Wagner points towards her own field of economics for signs of this stagnation. ‘Data shows that among the top 100 best published economists worldwide, only six are women. At Radboud University, the number of female professors has been stuck around 30 percent for a while. It's the same in other areas: only eight percent of central bank governors are women, and only 13 percent of finance ministers worldwide are women,’ explains Wagner. ‘That's strikingly low. We're not talking about a rare species here – women are literally every other person on this planet.’ 

Natascha Wagner

Global Data Lab 

Wagner is also the new head of Radboud University's Global Data Lab, a research center providing data on low- and middle-income countries. By offering datasets on economic and social conditions, education, health and gender empowerment, the Global Data Lab allows researchers to gain new insights.  

'Through our Global Data Lab, we see similar trends surrounding education and equality in developing countries,’ explains Wagner. ‘The number of years that girls and women are in school is slowly increasing and catching up with boys and men, but it has been a very slow process. And based on the current trajectory, it will take a whopping 132 years to close the gender wage worldwide according to the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report.’ Furthermore, there's various even more harmful issues showing disappointing trends: female genital mutilation is far from declining, while the use of contraception and the prevalence of polygamy are only slowly creeping towards targets set by the UN and other organizations.  

More experiments, more data 

To address that, Wagner pleads for more data and more social experimenting. Experimenting should go beyond loosely suggested quotas and courses to ‘fix women’. ‘This could be in the form of extra (financial) incentives for women to step up or by randomly matching leadership teams. There is evidence of success from India where one third of Village Council head positions are randomly reserved for women. But the government could also provide tax incentives to companies that show equal representation or could provide extra financial stimuli for families where both parents work similar hours. In addition, we could use social experiments to better understand our reservations against female leaders or why women are less listened to than men. We accept these types of experiments in developing countries, but are hesitant to do them in The Netherlands. We need to generate more data, in order to assess and challenge our beliefs and in particular the interventions we do to foster gender equality.’ 

‘These issues and many others are caused by old, lingering structures, and the data make it clear that the current approach is insufficient. What if the data we gather tell us that some of our efforts might be well intended and provide nice pictures but are otherwise simply not working? In order to not only detect but actively address our biases we need a culture change that is led by evidence, and to generate evidence we ultimately need data.’' 

Contact information

Question about this inaugural lecture? Contact Natascha Wagner via natascha.wagner [at] ru.nl (natascha[dot]wagner[at]ru[dot]nl). For questions, journalists can also contact our press office at +31 (0) 24 361 6000 or media [at] ru.nl (media[at]ru[dot]nl)

Organizational unit
Institute for Management Research
Diversity, Economy, International