Have Women's Lives Improved Globally?

In its annual measurement of global progress in the lives of women and girls, released October 27, 2009, the World Economic Forum reported some major improvements in surprising places. The 2009 Global Gender Gap Report -- which, country by county, examines data indicating the resources and status of women compared to men -- ranks Lesotho, for example, in the top 10, a marked improvement from its place at 16 last year and 43 in 2006. By contrast, the United States moved down three slots since last year and now ranks 31st.

The report, now in its third year of publication, ranks 134 countries on four dimensions: health and survival, educational attainment, economic participation and opportunity and political empowerment. By focusing on the gap between men and women in each country -- as opposed to comparing one nation to another -- the index encourages moves toward parity between women and men, girls and boys, at whatever the level of economic development. It seeks to provide an objective framework to allow countries to look at themselves within their region and see how they fare compared to similarly situated neighbors.

“Gender inequality is a matter of equity as well as efficiency,” says Saadia Zahidi, one of the authors of the Gender Gap Report and a director of the World Economic Forum. “On any global issue or challenge, if women are not considered, we are missing half the world [inequity] as well as missing opportunities for optimal outcomes [inefficiency].”

According to the index, no country in the world has yet reached gender equality, but as in past years, the Nordic countries rank the highest with the top four slots going to Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden. I have a theory about why. Nordic countries have depended on fishing for millennia. Men went to sea for up to 11 months of the year leaving women to tend to family, business and politics. These countries have never not known women to be fully engaged and essential for a thriving culture. Of course, the fact that they are small homogeneous societies with strong labor unions and quotas to encourage equity also helps.

Along with Lesotho, South Africa moved up dramatically -- from 22nd place last year to 6th -- reflecting major efforts in both countries to improve women’s labor participation and gains for women in parliament and cabinet won with the help of quotas.

Overall, the indexed countries have been most successful in closing gaps between men and women in education and in health -- which stand at 93 percent and 96 percent respectively. Lagging substantially are economic participation, where 60 percent of the gap is closed, and political, where only 17 percent of the gap has closed. Countries range from Iceland where 83 percent overall of the four gaps are closed and Yemen where only 48 percent of the gaps have closed.

The countries, explains Saadia Zahidi, fall into roughly three major groupings:

  • Group I Countries making almost no progress to close gaps (Yemen, Chad, Pakistan);
  • Group II Countries making progress on health and education but cultural constraints create barriers to economic and political participation. Such countries as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are investing in health and education in girls but not getting the concomitant return on their investment as women are not actively engaged in the workplace and in the political process;
  • Group III Gaps in these countries (including the United States and United Kingdom) have been almost completely closed in education and health; progress is occurring on economic and political participation. What is lagging is women’s presence at the highest levels of power be it management of a business or head of state or government or parliament. Countries that adopt quotas for business or politics often see an immediate jump in their standing once these mechanisms kick in.

One caveat noted by Zahidi and others: The indicators for political participation look at women in parliament and ministries and as heads of state and government. This treetops approach misses action that might be occurring at the grassroots. India for example, has a quota that requires one third of local village council seats be held by women. Any resulting improvement in women’s status is currently not captured because many countries do not have data available at this level.

Data availability also explains why at least 40 countries are not represented in the study. Missing in general are countries in Africa where lack of resources and political will restrict available information.

Data are a necessary component to start the process of resource allocation and policy shift. Data collection alone can’t make the sea level rise, but many political and business leaders hide behind the excuse that women must ‘make the case’ for change. The case can rarely be made without information that proves what women may intuitively already know. And looking at a gender gap that has been indexed should give leaders pause if they are not fully utilizing 50 percent of their talent.

Why the lag between education/health and economic and political empowerment? One might have thought that once girls were educated and kept healthy then they would ‘naturally’ find themselves in the workplace and in political positions of power. Power is probably the operative word in looking at this pipeline failure problem. Allocating health and education resources is in and of itself less threatening to the powers that be than relaxing control of the purse or political positions. Dominant groups rarely voluntarily relinquish their power.

Nevertheless, the Gender Gap Report reflects that change and improvement can happen, and the availability of this data plays an important role. First, the World Economic Forum is a powerful organization and gets the attention of global leaders -- by itself a strong validation of the goal of gender parity. Second, the report gives women civil society groups another tool in their toolbox to “hurry history.” It also confirms what we already know. The revolution is not finished.

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