gender, gender gaps, women in politics, Women's rights

progress at last?

There are very few reports on the state of women in the world that manage to generate interest from more than just us gender geeks. The World Economic Forum‘s annual Gender Gap Report is one of them. It provides solid analysis of reliable data, and cleverly packages this in a framework that makes perfect sense and manages to be useful at the same time. The 2013 edition is being launched today and as the WEF was kind enough to send me an advanced copy, I have had time to comb through the report and here are my insights. 

For those who are unfamiliar, the Gap Report is predicated on the assumption that gender equality progress can be measured through the narrowing of gaps between men and women in certain areas, including the economy, education, health and political participation. Meaning, if female literacy goes up, the levels of gender equality go up. Within each of these categories we find the usual suspects, like primary, secondary and tertiary enrollment rates, life expectancy and female seats in parliament. These stats are widely cited when discussing low income countries (as they form MDG targets), but since the Gap Report is global, we get to scrutinize medium and high income countries which is a nice change.

The Gap Report pulls these together to create a rating system that uncovers difference between countries and progress made over time. For instance, country A will score highly on political participation if women hold half of the seats in parliament, but might get a low score in education as there are more males than females in tertiary education. The report takes into consideration only the outcome of these measures, rather than inputs that may vary between high income and low income countries. So you might expect the UK to do really well as it has a lot more money to spend on education than Lesotho, but in terms of the gaps between boys and girls in educational attainment in absolute terms, Lesotho is doing better than the UK. The final ranking takes into account all four indexes and churns out a total rank.

look they made this lovely interactive widget too.

Unsurprisingly, the Nordic countries have jealously kept the top 4 places in the Gap Report rankings to themselves for the past 6 years. A newcomer to the top five this year is the Philippines, who’s up from number eight last year. A closer look reveals that Philippines has made some progress on closing the gap between men and women in terms of political participation and holding decision making positions. New Zealand, now at number seven, has slipped down a place due to a decrease in wage equality and Switzerland moved up a spot due to improvements in women’s estimated earned income. Nicaragua, remains the only Latin American country in the top 10 and made huge progress between 2011 and 2012, jumping from the 27th to the 9th place, mainly due to increases in women’s political and economic participation rates. Another newcomer to the 2013 report is Lao PDR, which ranks 60 overall (not bad!), but interestingly rates quite highly in terms of women’s economic participation.


Countries that have done really well over the past year include Bangladesh, which currently ranks at 75, a rise of 10 places. This is mainly due to a significant narrowing of the gender gap in education and an increase of women in the political sphere. Countries that continue to do badly include Israel, my home country, which has slipped 20 places in the past six years. oy vey.

According to the 2013 report, looking at the rankings of the past six years reveals that: ‘the 136 countries covered in the Report, representing over 90% of the world’s population, have closed almost 96% of the gap in health outcomes between women and men and almost 93% of the gap in educational attainment. However, the gap between women and men on economic participation and political empowerment remains wide: only 60% of the economic outcomes gap and only 21% of the political outcomes gap have been closed”.

To my mind, what is really striking about the Gap Report rankings is the correlation between countries with economic prosperity and higher levels of gender equality. And considering the audience of this report, which really aims to engage the businesses and corporate executives in an issue that is still firmly viewed as a ‘third sector’ issue, it really serves its purpose well.

The Gap Report’s ability to provide a global ranking system that scores countries according to progress towards gender equality is very interesting, but it fails to provide the reader with an understanding of how these processes have occurred and whether there is any connection between closing gender gaps and reducing gender inequality. The report doesn’t set out to do these things and the disclaimer on the first page makes this very clear. But I for one would like to perhaps see a spin off publication that delves deeper into a number of countries that have made significant progress in their rankings, and look at whether this correlates with other human development and women’s rights indicators. Otherwise it all seems like a pointless exercise.

I’m unclear as to whether women’s political participation, i.e. holding more seats in parliament, has actually translated into policy decisions that have benefited women? and anyone who knows anything about education figures will gleefully inform you that enrollment data is a terrible indicator because it is collected usually once a year on the first day of school and provides no indication of whether the pupil then actually attends school. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t give you a clue as to whether this enrolled pupil who may or may not be attending school regularly, is actually learning anything at all.

That said, the attempt to provide a global index on gender equality that appeals to people other than those who think UN document serial numbers are cool,  is a blessed endeavor and i do encourage the WEF to continue their good work!

Keshet Bachan


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