World leaders have long recognized the value of empowering women. But how much progress toward gender equality is being made?

This is a question that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged to answer — by 2015, the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking United Nations conference on gender issues in Beijing.

It’s a great idea to measure progress and to use the Beijing conference as a landmark. Problem is, the measurement of progress remains fragmented and incomplete. Entities including the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the World Economic Forum have created an alphabet soup of indicators aimed at tracking the gender gap, all with their own drawbacks and blind spots.

Measures of gender inequality that rely on income as a proxy for economic empowerment, for example, fail to recognize that a woman’s contribution to the household can’t always be measured in monetary terms. Measures that use longevity as a proxy for violence ignore the effects that sexual and other abuse can have on a woman’s ability to reach her potential.

What’s needed is a concerted, global effort to collect meaningful data and create indicators matching the Beijing objectives. This would entail cataloging the available information, identifying gaps, agreeing on international standards and helping poorer governments with the task of data collection. It would also involve asking slightly different questions. How many hours, for example, do women spend on unpaid domestic work? Are men’s attitudes toward women changing?

Everyone has a stake in the success of efforts to close the gender gap. What the effort needs is the kind of political will that Clinton and others are already beginning to generate. Hopefully, ten years from now, we’ll be able to say that it has made a measurable difference.

Bloomberg News (Oct. 22)