'We don't take up enough space and we should': A&S alumna Tara Patricia Cookson's research on the gender data gap

March 4, 2020 by Sarah MacFarlane - A&S News

In 2009, government funding cuts forced the Kelowna Women's Resource Centre to close its doors after 25 years of providing legal and health services to women. Among its staff was Faculty of Arts & Science alumna Tara Patricia Cookson.

“It showed uncaring priorities,” says Cookson. As an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Cookson had previously participated in study abroad programs in Mexico and Argentina, where she discovered similar situations. “I found women’s organizations and male allies fighting for more caring societies.”

It was the beginning of her journey as a scholar-activist through the lens of institutional ethnography — the study of how organizations affect people’s day-to-day lives.

Cookson earned her master’s degree in 2010 from U of T’s Women & Gender Studies Institute (WGSI). “WGSI is where I first saw that you can have a meaningful existence as a scholar-activist,” she says. “The professors were so inspirational in the way they connected their scholarship to grassroots causes.”

Professor Alissa Trotz, director of WGSI, says many of the institute’s faculty are involved in work outside the University. For nearly three decades, Trotz has been working with Red Thread, a grassroots women’s organization in Guyana. At the time that Cookson enrolled at U of T, Red Thread women were involved in learning about and offering support to Venezuelan women’s successful efforts to have unwaged work recognized in the Bolivarian constitution of Venezuela — a topic that greatly interested Cookson.

“There was a serendipitous overlap,” says Trotz. “Tara came in with a set of intellectual questions that she was interested in and we were able to have an amazing conversation. It's an excellent example of what it means to be intellectually imaginative, methodologically rigorous and ethical and accountable to the communities that animate the work we do both in our research and with our students in the classroom.”

After earning her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2015, Cookson co-founded Ladysmith, a feminist research consultancy. Ladysmith assists international development organizations with the collection and analysis of data, as well as advocacy concerning the gender data gap. For example, Cookson was the substantive editor for UN Women’s flagship research report, Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World. “I made sure all the different pieces of research came together with a common voice and that there was a set of key messages for advocacy.”

Ladysmith is also developing a new tool called Gender Data Kit. “It’s a set of technologies, methods and resources for grassroots data collection,” says Cookson. “It’s for women to collect data on the things they see and that matter to them, so that it's not always top-down policymakers asking for evaluation. We need to make sure that women's voices are informing programming.”

Cookson is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at UBC and in 2018, she published Unjust Conditions: Women’s Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer Programs. The award-winning book analyzes a widespread strategy for ending poverty: conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs. “The idea was that this would be the silver bullet for poverty alleviation,” says Cookson. Since the introduction of CCT programs in the 1990s, more than 60 countries have implemented them with assistance from the World Bank to offer citizens cash incentives if they meet certain conditions.

Cookson studied the CCT program in Peru, where women received $35 per month if they took their children to school and regular health check-ups and sought prenatal and postpartum care. The program was effective — 96 per cent of women participating in the program met the conditions. But Cookson found there was more going on below the surface. “I looked at not whether conditional cash transfers work, because we know they do, but how they work.”

She found a host of details that hadn’t been included in the data collected on the program’s efficiency. Women were walking for hours, often pregnant or with young children, to get to medical clinics — only to find they were closed. “But the data collected on these programs would only show that the woman had met the conditions.”

Cookson also discovered “shadow conditions” — stipulations women had to meet that weren’t requirements of the program, such as being told to march in a politician's reelection campaign under threat of suspension from the CCT program.

“These programs are popular because they're so evaluated and measurable,” says Cookson. “We can see exactly how many kids go to school and how many pregnant women have prenatal appointments. But what’s made invisible in the way we're measuring? How objective is something if you're choosing to measure certain things and not others?”

Cookson wanted to combine her academic research and critical thinking with Ladysmith’s advocacy efforts to affect policymaking — and it worked. In March 2019, she was an expert panelist at the 63rd session of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, where she stressed the need to reexamine CCT program conditions. As a result, member states agreed to revise these programs to make them more gender sensitive.

“It’s a small moving of the needle,” says Cookson, “but it gives women a tool to lobby their governments about cash transfer programs. I find that kind of work interesting because there is a place for feminist academic skills in public policymaking. We don't take up enough space in those places and we should.”

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 by highlighting the groundbreaking contributions and unique stories of A&S women. All week, we’ll shine a spotlight on the vibrant women of our community.