NEW YORK (MainStreet) — 200 million fewer women have Internet access than men in the developing world. Globally, one in three women suffers from physical or sexual violence. In Ethiopia, 43.2% of young women believed it was justified for a man to beat his wife if she went out without telling him. That's the 2011 statistic, down from 64.2% in 2005.

It may be hard to believe in our age of instantly available information that many key facts about the state of women and girls around the world are hard to come by, but that's what Chelsea Clinton argued at the Internet Week conference in New York. Currently a vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, the former First Daughter is working on NoCeilings.org, which seeks to aggregate vital data on female progress over the past 20 years, and make it accessible to the masses through an interactive website using data visualizations.

"My mom and I wanted to have a comprehensive look of today versus 1995," she said. "In September of that year, my mom went to the [United Nations] Fourth World Conference in Beijing and said something that shouldn't have been controversial but at the time was quite incendiary--that women's rights are human rights, and that human rights are women's rights."

The goal, Clinton said, wasn't simply for activists to pat themselves on the back but to "see where we've made progress, where we've stood still and where gaps remain." The information came from stalwart sources like the U.N. and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) alongside "less traditional partners like Facebook." The Clinton Foundation also "worked to generate new data where possible," she said, "with UCLA, Harvard and others."

Gaps in the available data were both a big problem and revealing in their own right, according to Ben Fry, a principal at Fathom Information Design, the agency that aided the Clinton Foundation with the processing and visualization of the data itself. "Statistics around violence against women are exceptionally bad, and yet it's perhaps one of the top issues being dealt with today," he said.

The human stories around difficult issues such as female genital mutilation and child marriages were what resonated most deeply for Clinton, the issues "that are deeply hard for all of us to talk about, and where there are deeply challenging data gaps, for example, around something like gender-based violence," she said. She hopes that making the data widely accessible and visualized through interactive online tools will "make it more un-ignorable," she said. 

Perhaps most pressingly, Clinton hopes that these facts will become "un-ignorable" not just to girls and women "but also to men and boys here in the U.S. and around the world."


To gather these and other insights, Fry and his team looked at 850,000 data points in 190 countries over 20 years, exploring themes including whether girls have achieved basic proficiency in reading and math. One important insight, he said, was that women's academic advancement often doesn't translate to the workplace.

"We see advances in secondary school but that doesn't make it to the boardroom," he said. "Argentina, for example, has 42% fewer women than men in executive positions, and we can see how this plays out from the time people are entering secondary school, university enrollments, then positions [in the workplace]."

Perhaps the most notable part of this endeavor is that it is the first standardize data from so many disparate sources, and to make that data open source and available online for developers to query and build tools around. Perhaps the natural result of pulling in information from around the globe and among developed and developing countries, some data is poorly reported and poorly recorded, Fry said.

TheStreet Recommends

TheStreet tried out the NoCeilings.org tool to visualize and explore new data for ourselves. There are some issues with the user interface such as technical bugs and a lack of explanation around many of the data variables. The overall feel is that of a tool that might be powerful for nonprofit organizations and researchers who are already in the know, but less so for regular people (you'd have to Google around to learn that "BLI" means the "Better Life Index" or to figure out what it means that women in Canada scored an average of 281.5 on "PIAAC problem-solving"). Plus, all too often TheStreet explored certain categories only to find that stats were available for no more than a handful of countries. All the same, this resource is only in its early stages, with updates expected later this year, and the mere fact that such wide-ranging data is being gathered about so many countries at once presents unique opportunities for comparison and policy formation.

A few facts that struck Clinton most about the findings: the U.S. is one of only nine countries without paid time off for new parents. "We're in the company of countries that are largely small island states in the South Pacific, so it's both surprising to me that we are in such small company and who our cohort is in that company," she said. "It also surprised me that we made no progress around the world in terms of women's labor force participation. In 1995, 55% of women were in school or working full-time, and in 2015 it was still 55%." That's less surprising, though, given that more than 100 countries have restrictions on what women can do in terms of work, and whether or not they can open bank accounts and sign contracts, Clinton said.

One often-discussed topic around female economic progress is the wage gap between men and women. "A lot of numbers are thrown around, and one of the things we want to do here is to unpack the story," said Fry. "There's the headline version, that women make this many tenths of a dollar versus men, but [it's important to] peel back the layers between different kinds of roles, different industries. These numbers are very different country to country."

While there's clear and comprehensive data from the U.S. Census Bureau, he said, "different countries may not have centralized collection [of this kind of data], and even the names people use for various roles may not match up" when trying to compare salaries. "This is one of those very tricky [variables to measure], but we hope to be able to get at some of those subtleties in the future," he said.

People are really interrogating the wage gap issue in the United States, Clinton said, but "that kind of deep examination isn't happening around the world as frequently or with as much intensity, so it's important not only to make an even more robust argument about [the wage gap] here in the U.S. but to allow more people to have robust conversations" by collecting and aggregating strong data worldwide.

There are bright spots of positive change between 1995 and today, too. Maternal mortality, for example, dropped more than 40% in that time, with some countries like Afghanistan seeing a 66% drop. All the same, Clinton said, "progress cannot be mistaken for success." Despite these great declines, close to 300,000 women still die annually from childbirth. "If these women had the same access to prenatal care that I had when I was pregnant with my daughter, [this wouldn't be the case]," Clinton said.


The global nature of the report shouldn't give Americans a superiority complex. As a matter of fact, in some parts of the United States, the maternal mortality rate has actually gone up, partially as a result of the rise in obesity, particularly in immigrant communities where there's the least access to prenatal care, Clinton said. "I like to talk about the work we still have to do in our own country," she said. "Not to say it's awful--women can't walk out without a male in Yemen or can't drive themselves in Saudi Arabia--but it's good to recognize that we still have work to do and that we've lost ground in some areas."

Collecting all of this data and distributing it is a noble feat, perhaps, but where does that leave us in terms of changing the facts on the ground? "We're hoping that even simply sharing the data will surface more ideas and suggestions for what's [helped to make progress on] challenges women and girls faced 20 years ago that they face less of today," Clinton said.

Policymakers have the power to start shifting social practices, such as Malawi's February decision to make child marriage illegal for first time. "One in four women in the world are married before 18, with hundreds of millions married before 15, and that's partly because it's still legal to get married before 18," Clinton said. "In many places it's still legal to marry a girl without her own consent, so there was a real grassroots effort in Malawi over the last few years that got the attention of legislators and policymakers."

"I hope it'll help empower and inspire other young people and organizations in other countries," Clinton said.