Is equality worth measuring?

Mark Priestley and Stefanos Grammenos

This blog post is part of a series linked to the Evidence & Policy Special Issue (Volume 17, Issue 2): The many faces of disability in evidence for policy and practice. Guest Edited by Carol Rivas, Ikuko Tomomatsu and David Gough. This post is based on the Special Issue article, ‘How useful are equality indicators? The expressive function of ‘stat imperfecta’ in disability rights advocacy‘.

Measuring equality can be difficult, especially when there is a lack of suitable data available, but it makes a difference. If a thing is worth measuring then it is worth measuring well – but even approximate indications of inequality can be useful in drawing public attention to injustices, making marginalised groups more visible and challenging policy assumptions. In a newly published article in Evidence & Policy, we argue that public investments in measuring inequalities have a social value that can’t be measured by technical perfection alone. Imperfect statistics sometimes have strong policy effects!

We have spent more than a decade helping policy makers and rights advocates to make disability equality more visible at the EU level and in EU policy processes, and with some success, including through the development of easily understood indicators of the situation of disabled people in European countries. The lessons we learned are just as relevant to those using public data and statistics to advocate for other minority groups in policy processes, especially for groups that are not well represented in official data and publications (such as children or ethnic and religious minorities).

The limitations of using public datasets can be frustrating for rights advocates if the surveys on which they are based were not designed to take important inequalities into account. In our example, the concept of disability was not always clearly defined in EU survey questionnaires, or consistent between different surveys or comparable between countries, and sometimes it was missing altogether (e.g. from the EU core Labour Force Survey). Such experiences will be all too familiar to those who seek to highlight other dimensions of equality, such as sexuality or ethnicity for example.

Nevertheless, we take an optimistic view. Even partial evidence of inequalities tends to fuel rather than extinguish the fires of political debate. The policy impact of statistical indicators often owes as much to their expressive function as to their technical precision. For example, we achieved a significant increase in mainstreaming critical policy debate around disability equality in EU co-ordination processes (like the European Semester and development of European disability strategy) using relatively limited, albeit robust, indicators.

Despite the limitations of data availability and quality much was gained politically from pursuing a ‘good enough’ approach to equality measurement, at scale and over the long-term. Processing millions of observations and routinely publishing the findings provided a solid foundation on which to build the profile of disability rights and equality in policy discussion, and to advocate for public investment in better disability data. It is only by demonstrating what can be measured that commitments to do it better can be secured.

Rights-based equality indicators are important in holding states to account. They provide benchmarks against which the public can measure policy progress. When we encounter political resistance to equality measurement we should ask whether this reflects lack of technical feasibility or lack of political will. When a statistically weak measure hints at a strong policy message there may be reason to invest more effort in its measurement, not less. The choices that states make to measure equality outcomes for some groups rather than others expresses a lot about their relative respect for the rights for those groups. We should be prepared to judge the effort states make to measure inequalities as well as the precision with which they do it. If a right is worth defending then its achievement is also worth measuring.

Mark Priestley is Professor of Disability Policy and a member of the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds. From 2008-2019 he was Scientific Director of the European Commission’s Academic Network of European Disability experts (ANED) and retains a continuing role in providing expertise in this area.

Stefanos Grammenos is an economist at the Centre for European Social & Economic Policy (CESEP), an independent research consultancy in Brussels. He has been closely involved in data analysis and statistical reporting concerning the situation of disabled people in the EU and associated countries, including reporting for ANED.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Priestly, M. and Grammenos, S. (2021). How useful are equality indicators? The expressive function of ‘stat imperfecta’ in disability rights advocacy. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16141001670976.

Image credit: Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Using evidence in shaping disability policy in Romania: the case of sheltered workshops

Evidence, objectivity and welfare reform: a qualitative study of disability benefit assessments

The many faces of disability in evidence for policy and practice: embracing complexity

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