How Much Progress Is the World Making to Gender Parity?

Large gaps in economic and political participation persist even in many developed nations

By Laura D. Tyson and Saadia Zahidi

(Originally published
in the Financial Times on Nov. 20, 2013.)

Every year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report takes stock of where the world stands on gender parity. The newest survey covers 136 economies, most of which have been included since the report’s first edition eight years ago. The report measures the gaps between women and men on education, health, economic participation and political empowerment. Countries are compared and ranked on gender gaps in these four areas and on an index of overall gender parity.

The good news is that gender gaps, while still wide in many countries, are narrowing in most parts of the world. More than 80 per cent of the countries covered have improved. The gaps in education and health have nearly disappeared in many nations. The bad news is that large gaps in economic and political participation persist even in many developed nations. At the current pace of change, women will not approach full parity on these indicators for another 80 years. That is a huge squandered opportunity not only for several generations of women but for their families, their societies and the world.

To be sure, gender gaps vary enormously among nations. We find that the highest ranking country in the world – Iceland – has closed over 87 per cent of its overall gender gap. By contrast, the lowest ranking country – Yemen – has closed only 51 per cent of this gap.

Education is a success story for most of the world and progress is not limited to wealthy countries. Globally, we estimate that 93 per cent of the gender gap in schooling has now disappeared. In 12 countries, including Lesotho and the United Arab Emirates, the literacy rate for women is actually higher than that for men. In 35 countries, girls are more likely than boys to be enrolled in primary education. In 68 countries, more girls than boys are enrolled in secondary education. At the university level, 69 countries have more women enrolled than men.

[Watch Laura Tyson’s Ted Video: The Gender Gap and Inclusive Growth.]

The gender gap on health is even smaller. There are some notable exceptions, of course. In China, India, Vietnam and Azerbaijan, for example, female-male birth ratios are still abnormally low. In other nations, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Botswana and Qatar, the healthy life expectancy of women is lower than that of men. But the global trend is in the opposite direction. We estimate that 96 per cent of the global gender gap in health has disappeared.

This is dramatic progress, but it is only part of the story. The gender gaps in economic participation and political power remain much wider – even in many wealthy nations. These gaps also differ significantly among countries. Some of the highest female labour-participation rates are in Malawi, Mozambique and Burundi, where women make up a larger portion of the workforce than men. By contrast, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Syria have some of the world’s lowest female labour force participation rates. No country has reached parity on wages. While women hold more than 50 per cent of top management roles in the private and public sector in Jamaica and the Philippines, they make up less than 3 per cent of these positions in Pakistan and Yemen. In the US, women hold 43 per cent of these roles.

With rare exceptions, politics is an area where women fare poorly around the world. No country has reached parity on women in parliament except Rwanda, which is not covered in our report because we lacked other data. In Yemen and Qatar, there are no women in the equivalent of their parliamentary bodies. Norway has the highest share of ministerial posts held by women – 53 per cent – but 10 countries have no female ministers at all. No country has reached parity on the number of years with a female head of government. India ranks first on that indicator, whereas 65 per cent of countries have never had a female head of government over the past 50 years.

Based on the changes we have tracked over much of the past decade, we estimate that the world will not reach full gender parity for another 80 years. And that projection may well be too optimistic, given that the countries that do not supply data on gender parity may well be those with the worst imbalances.

There is nothing natural about the pace of change – it depends on the decisions of individuals, governments and businesses to prioritise long-term returns from gender equality over short-term convenience.

So who is winning the race to equality?

We find four distinct groups. The first group includes countries that have had an overall good performance since 2006 (above the median) and are moving ahead rapidly. This group includes Belgium, Switzerland, Lesotho, Luxembourg and Iceland. Iceland is not only already the top-ranked country, but it also has had the fastest rate of progress over the past eight years in closing the gender gap. These countries have essentially closed their health and education gaps already and they are moving ahead rapidly on integrating more women into the economy and politics.

A second group includes countries that performed above the median in 2006 but have since stalled or even reversed their progress. These countries include El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Botswana, Tanzania and Moldova. In this group, the reversals stem mainly from losses to previous gains in political empowerment.

The third group is composed of countries that were below the median in 2006 – and still are – but have made rapid progress since then. Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua fall in this category. In some of these countries, such as Saudi Arabia, women are a majority of university graduates but only a small minority of the labour force and an even smaller share of leadership positions.

Finally, a fourth group includes countries that were below the median in 2006 and are falling further behind. This group includes Albania, Mali, Algeria, Kuwait and Zambia. In most of these countries, basics such as education still need improvement. In others, such as Kuwait, the gender gap in economic participation has actually increased, despite a decline in the gender gap in education.

For the world as a whole, the report shows that 96 per cent of health gaps, 93 per cent of education gaps, 60 per cent of economic gaps and only 21 per cent of political gaps have been closed. Globally, women are almost as healthy and as educated as men. Unfortunately, women are still far from full integration and parity in economic and political decision-making. This is a waste of talent and a missed opportunity to build prosperity. A wide array of studies confirms that countries with large gender gaps tend to be less competitive.

While correlation does not prove causality, the reasoning is quite simple. Empowering women means a more efficient use of a nation’s human capital endowment and therefore over time a nation’s competitiveness depends, among other things, on whether and how it educates and utilises its female talent. Similarly, at the company level the best decision-making and innovation occurs when the female talent pool is fully engaged and integrated.

The fact that women make up more than half of university graduates in many developed countries and in many emerging markets has transformed the global talent pool. Add to that the growing purchasing power of women, and it is clear why governments and companies must take account of the rising economic clout of women as consumers, clients, workers and decision makers.

The governments and companies that are quickest to recognise these trends will earn high dividends on their investments in gender parity. In today’s world, women’s rights are not only human rights – they are a key determinant of economic performance and winning the race to prosperity has become synonymous with winning the race to equality.

Laura D. Tyson is a professor of management and director of the Institute for Business and Social Impact at the University of California’s Berkeley­Haas School of Business. Saadia Zahidi is head of the World Economic Forum’s Gender Parity and Human Capital programmes.

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