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Socio-Economic Gender Gap Is Closing Worldwide, but Far from Eliminated


An image promoting gender equality, a man and woman holding hands, in Denmark The world’s gender gap along economic, political and other social dimensions continues to narrow, according to a new report released by the World Economic Forum, but lack of equality for women remains a major roadblock in most countries, including the U.S. The report quantified how close countries have come to gender parity and shows improvement on various measures since last year’s report in 86 of 133 nations studied. Iceland proved to be a leader in gender equality overall for the fifth year running, with other Nordic countries—Finland, Norway, and Swedentaking the next top three spots. For the first time, the Philippines made the top five as well.

The researchers measured gender equality by evaluating the gaps between men and women in four areas: economic participation and opportunity, which is measured through salaries and participation in highly skilled employment; education, measured by access to basic and higher levels; political empowerment, based on representation of each gender in decision-making structures; and health and survival, which measures a nation’s sex ratio (to detect signs of high rates of sex-selective abortions or infanticide) and life expectancy. By converting these measures into ratios—if 20 percent of college graduates in a country are women, for example, a variable of .25 is assigned to reflect a ratio of 2:8—the researchers ensured they could measure the gaps between attainment levels in men and women for each area studied.

For health and survival, as well as in education, the numbers were good: The global gender gap for health care stands at 96 percent closed, and gaps in education around the world are 93 percent closed. In fact, 25 countries evaluated have completely closed their educational gender gaps. But although women are educated nearly as many years as men in most countries, their roles in paid labor and leadership have yet to catch up. Gender gaps for economic equality and political participation worldwide were only 60 and 21 percent closed as of last week’s report, respectively.

This lag is unsurprising, says WEF Head of Gender Parity Saadia Zahidi. “In most countries, health and education are the bare minimum criteria for women to enter the workforce,” she says. “It is only once this has been achieved that it becomes possible to focus on helping optimize economic and political equalities.” There are exceptions, she notes: In Malawi, Mozambique and Burundi, women are highly integrated into the work force despite a large gender gap in primary education access. In another example, India ranks ninth in political empowerment, but falls to 101st overall when health and education are factored in. But for most countries, women’s health and education measures perform better than measures along other dimensions.

What’s left for countries like the U.S., which have closed gender gaps in education and health but fall short (in the case of the U.S., 23rd) in overall ranking? The big difference between top-ranking Finland and most other countries is the government’s unique level of commitment to helping women combine work and family life: With mandatory paternal leave, Zahidi says, comes more equal distribution of childcare and housework. This leaves women more able to rise to positions of power in the workplace, and has helped narrow the salary gap between men and women. “Almost every government can do better when it comes to generating returns on their investments in women’s health and education,” Zahidi says. “Only a comprehensive approach to ensuring women’s integration in the economy or in public life will address the current reality,” where employers can all too easily justify hiring a man over a woman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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