The Best Place To Be a Woman: World Economic Forum Measures the Global Gender Gap

Saadia Zahidi, Head of the Forum’s Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program, and Co-Author of the Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. Image Credit: Epocanegocios Globo.

I had the opportunity to speak with Saadia Zahidi,  Head of the World Economic Forum’s Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program, and also one of the authors of the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report looks at 134 countries around the world and analyzes “how well they divide resources and opportunities amongst male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources.”

The study focuses on how wide the gender inequality gap is in four key areas:

1) Economic participation and opportunity – outcomes on salaries, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment; 2) Educational attainment – outcomes on access to basic and higher level education; 3) Political empowerment – outcomes on representation in decision-making structures; 4) Health and survival – outcomes on life expectancy and sex ratio.


This year we again have the Nordic nations topping the list, Iceland followed by Norway, Finland and Sweden, while the countries with the widest gaps are Pakistan, Chad and Yemen.

"Nordic countries Iceland (1), Norway (2), Finland (3) and Sweden (4) continue to demonstrate the greatest equality between men and women," the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report finds.

Countries which were highlighted on this year’s list were Angola, Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates, who are all moving up fast on the Forum’s index. The United States has moved up 12 places, making its way into the  top 20 for the first time, while France has moved drastically down the list.

So how does the World Economic Forum’s study encourage countries to invest in women? Read my interview with Saadia Zahidi below and find out.

The founder of the World Economic Forum stated that, “we still need a true gender equality revolution, not only to mobilize a major pool of talent both in terms of volume and quality, but also to create a more compassionate value system within all our institutions.”

How do you think the Global Gender Gap Report contributes to a “true gender equality revolution?”

Saadia Zahidi: We look at gender equality as a matter of rights, as a matter of equality, women and men receiving the same access to opportunities and resources. But the second way we look at this issue is really a matter of efficiency.

Women make up one half of the human resources that are available to any country in the world, in some cases more than that, and if that half of the population is not healthy and not educated, and not economically empowered, not politically empowered, that entails a significant loss for these economies. So that’s really the key message underlying the work that we do at the World Economic Forum on gender gaps.

What can we learn from the Nordic countries that regularly top the list?

Saadia Zahidi: You know, what’s very interesting about the Nordic case, and the fact that they do top our index every year, our index is deliberately disassociated from the level of income or the level of development of the country. So by looking at gaps we’ve actually decided to remove the issue of levels.

Now its clear that a country such as Sweden will have higher levels of
education as compared to, let’s say Bangladesh. But what would be a more meaningful comparison is to be able to provide a way of being able to look at gaps regardless of the level of resources in a country.

And that’s what we find, yes they are rich economies, but they are topping the index not because they are rich, but because they are providing whatever resources they’ve got and dividing those equitably between women and men.

Now, that’s clearly something which, in terms of health and education these economies are doing well. What’s interesting is what they’ve done over the years to insure that women are economically integrated and politically empowered, and that has been partially through practices that allow women to combine both family and work – for both women and men to combine family and work.

And second, in the area of politics there has been the use of “targets” to allow them to reach this position.

At the same time though, there are certainly several other performers in the top ten that could serve as examples for the developing world as well, and those countries are Lesotho, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and South Africa.

So these would be the four countries that are in the top 20 that yes, have a lower level of resources, but are distributing that very equally among women and men.

What would you say has been the most striking finding of this year’s report?

Saadia Zahidi: This is the 5th Edition of the Gender Gap Report and when the index was created in 2006, it was created very much with having a view of ensuring that we are able to have a methodology that allows us to collect progress over time.

So this year we decided to take a look back over the past five years and see what is happening in terms of progression and what is happening in terms of regression.

The good news is, 86% of the 114 countries that we’ve been covering since 2006 have actually progressed. The bad news is that of course, the 14% have not and are in fact regressing.

When we look at the percentage change between the score that said countries had in 2006 and the score that they have now, and how big of a percentage change that has been, what we find is that there are high performers at the very top end of the rankings, but more encouragingly at the very bottom of the rankings.

So for example, countries such as Iceland, and Finland and Norway, are only
maintaining their top position in the rankings, but only relative to themselves they show a lot of improvement.

Perhaps more interestingly and more encouragingly, for the world, we also have very high performers at the bottom of the rankings, and that includes countries like United Arab Emirates (UAE), that’s jumped quite a number of places in terms of ranking, but more importantly relative to its own score in 2006 the same categories were rated and ranked very low in this global ranking, but indicative through the change in the education category they have been improving.

So there is this positive trend that we see at the top of the ratings and at the bottom of the rankings. There are of course countries such as Ecuador, Mali, that are regressing. They weren’t very high to begin with and they are getting lower.

How do you think the recent global recession has contributed to countries like the United States making such a huge strides for the first time?

Saadia Zahidi: We are looking at a lot of aggregated data and so it’s hard to see a lot of those specifics sectoral changes, and a lot of the data does say that men have lost more jobs as compared to women. Certainly there’s a lot of truth there, certainly there are industries that are male-dominated so that most of the people losing those jobs are male, and sectors where there haven’t been such loss of jobs happen, sectors which have been dominated more by women and we see if we look at the predictions of how these sectors will grow its also clear that there are some predictions that it will be the sectors dominated by women that are going
to be ones that will grow.

That is all research that we see externally, and it all appears extremely credible. What we’re looking at though are very aggregated data sets, and so we see the percentage of women among professional and technical workers, or we see the percentage of women overall in the labor force.

And most of this data does have a lag of about a year to two years depending on the country we are covering. So what we are seeing as a picture for 2010 is probably the picture from the end of 2008 beginning of 2009. So it would be hard to say that there appears to be a difference.

The reason the U.S. jumps up in the rankings according to our data is because the wage gap between women and men has been reduced, again this is estimated earned income data which also has a lack of about two years.

The second reason is of course the percentage of women that are considered ministerial positions. That’s another reason, because there are more women in
the current administration than in the previous one.

Why should nations pay attention to what the Forum has to say about their gender gap? Why is it important?

Saadia Zahidi: One of the very basic ways in which solutions can be found is first to measure the magnitude of the problem. And we looked around when we started beginning this work, and we have about 25 years of history in producing indexes in our Competitiveness Program.

When we looked around it seemed like there wasn’t a very comprehensive measure of gender equality, one that would capture all of the four dimensions that this index captures: health, education, economic participating, political empowerment that uses more than one indicator for each one of these categories, and that disassociates progress from the level of income from a country, because the message that we find is an important one to put out there is to ensure that countries see gender equality not as a luxury good, but as something you must integrate into your development processes from day one.

So that’s really the reason we created this index and that’s been the impact of this index.

It’s a little hard to measure the impact of where this data is used, but certainly literally every single day it’s either quoted in the media or it’s used by universities and schools around the world for very serious academic research, it’s used for reproduction in school text books.

And so that message of just trying to understand how big these gaps are, and which countries are doing well, in promoting gender equality.

I think that message certainly helps contribute to what we hope will be a gender equality revolution.

Bangladesh has been getting a lot of positive attention of late, from its strides towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to its “secular revolution.” What is the most valuable lesson that countries can learn from Bangladesh moving up on the Forum’s gender gap index?

Saadia Zahidi: Well Bangladesh, if we look at the South Asian countries, it’s certainly the second highest rank out of the countries in South Asia. Sri Lanka is far above the rest, but this is another one that does extremely well. If we look among the Muslim majority countries it still does fairly well.

When we look just at the outcome measures, education, health, economic involvement, political empowerment – it’s clear that political empowerment is one where Bangladesh, not unlike other South Asian countries, does have a strength.

In terms of the women in Parliament, women make up almost 20%, in terms of women in ministerial positions, almost 16%. But at least in our index its really that figure of the number of years of having a female Head of State has had quite a large impact in Bangladesh’s ranking on the political indicator. The world as a whole is doing so badly in political empowerment that by comparison these
statistics put Bangladesh near the very top.

One weakness however remains on the health side, and that’s the healthy life expectancy. Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world where women actually live less than men. When we look at the healthy life expectancy
it’s 55 years for women and 56 years for men.

Educational attainment, its one of the highest ranking countries again in South Asia that have actually helped close the gap on primary education, on secondary education, and again, these are out of the children who are actually in school, not counting those that simply don’t make it to school. Out of those who make it to school, there is no gender gap.

In terms of tertiary education, levels are extremely low, 5% for women and 9% for men, there is this gap that about half the number of women and going to university as men are.

Finally in terms of economic participation, this is one there could, of course, be the most progress. Given that these gaps are closing in terms of education in particular, and given that there is this strong tradition of political empowerment of women, this one area, where relatively speaking, Bangladesh is lagging behind 117 out of 134 countries.

Labor force participation for women is 62% for men its 85%, so there is quite a
long way to go. In terms of senior level positions,that is another major gap. 10% of legislatures and managerial positions are occupied by women, professional and technical worker positions are 22% occupied by women.

But you talked about the progress that the country has been making on the index, and in general. Partially this is due to the political empowerment one, but probably most encouragingly, its because of those economic participation data, that’s the place where probably the most gains could be had in terms of relative progress and the labor force participating rate has been steadily climbing up over the last fews years, and the perception of wage and equality has been going down.

The estimated imcome gap has remained fairly steady, but there has been over, between last year and this year, a small change. The women in legislator and senior official positions has actually been going down but that’s being counter balanced by the professional and technical worker positions that have been going up.

So to make a long story short, in terms of getting women from the higher education they are receiving, and getting women into more skilled positions, the country has been doing well. The overall labor force participation rate has been
going up as well.

Then finally taking a look at some of the policy measures that might be impacting this, Bangladesh is a country that provides 16 weeks of maternity leave, this in comparison to less in the United States, 12 weeks. Maternity leave benefits 100% of the wages are paid, the coverage is provided by the employer, these are fairly good statistics that we look at as global data.

It’s certainly the political participation, that’s one where it’s an extremely high ranking country compared to, not just south Asia, but other parts of the world. That’s one the has a clear impact on Bangladesh’s rating, but what’s perhaps also interesting is the economic participation category because its matching what tomorrow’s work force in Bangladesh is likely to be. With these decreasing gaps between women and men’s education at the primary and secondary level and an increasingly smaller gap in terms of tertiary education, the work force of the future is going to be increasingly female.

And so having some of these measures which are allowing more women to enter the labor force will certainly be supportive of the future for ensuring the work force is integrated.

Watch Saadia talk more in-depth about the report’s findings on Bloomberg News:

*This post of mine was also published on Feministing, Ms. Magazine, and The Huffington Post.

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