Annually, since 2006, the World Economic Forum [WEF] has released a report that seeks to quantify persistent gender inequality the world over. The Report, the WEF says, is aimed at generating awareness about existing gender inequality and facilitating policies to reduce gaps between men and women.
The Report measures gender equality gaps in four key areas – education, health, economics, and politics. Education considers ratios of boys and girls and men and women in primary, secondary, and tertiary education as well as relative literacy rates. Health gaps compare the sex ratio at birth and life expectancy. Economic gaps are a composition of remuneration gap (how much men and women are paid for their work), labour force participation, and advancement, which is calculated as “the ratio of women to men among legislators, senior officials and managers, and the ratio of women to men among technical and professional workers” (4). Finally, the politics gap reflects “the ratio of women to men in minister-level positions, … the ratio of women to men in parliamentary positions” (4) and women’s proportional share of executive political office in the preceding 50 years. Results are available by country for each of the four areas as well as an overall country score; in all cases scores are on a scale of 0 to 1, with 1 representing total equality.
The Report is based on three principles – the first is that the gaps are calculated on the basis of gender differences in outcomes, not on the absolute resources or opportunities within the country. According to the WEF, this allows for a rating that is truly about gender gaps rather than the level of development within an individual country. Second, the WEF assess outcomes not means, focusing on, for example, the number of men and women in high skilled jobs not on policies aimed at achieving this outcome (like maternity leave). Finally, the report focuses on equality rather than women’s empowerment, rewarding countries with small gaps and neither rewarding nor punishing countries where women out perform men.
Overall, the 136 countries represented in the survey–comprising 90% of the world’s population–have closed 96% of the health gaps and 93% of educational attainment gaps. On the other hand, 40% of the economic gap and 79% of the political empowerment gap remain. The size of the gender gap in politics is particularly troubling. Access to power and resources is critical not only in and of itself but for the effect that women in power may have on other aspects of gender inequality by pursuing policies that may alleviate or target women’s oppression. The worsening of the economic gap, particularly in EU and OECD countries, may reflect the fact that gendered policies such as maternity leave and childcare are largely conceptualized in terms of economic rather than gender equality objectives (Lewis and Giullari, 2005; Fagan et al., 2006; Annesly, 2007; EC, 2010 ).
In many ways, the ranking of individual countries is unsurprising. The top four countries, all Scandinavian, remain unchanged from 2012 and each has closed over 80% of the gender gap as defined by the WEF. Other countries have done less well than might be expected: Canada and the US ranked 21st and 23rd respectively, behind nations such as the Philippines, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the African nation of Lestho. Several European nations stand well back: France at 45th and Italy at 71st, with both closing less than 70% of the overall gender gap.
The Report receives widespread media attention, inspires significant debate about gender equality, and ensures quantitative benchmarks are widely available for comparative analysis across countries and over time. There are, however, several limitations and weaknesses with its methodology and what is, and is not, included. In the case of the economic enumeration gap, the WEF uses the methodology of the United Nations Development Progamme, which the latter admits is “crudely estimated on the basis of data on the ratio of the female nonagricultural wage to the male nonagricultural wage, the female and male shares of the economically active population, the total female and male population and GDP per capita in PPP US$” (2009:209); in several cases no data was available and a ratio of 0.75 was, somewhat arbitrarily, used. In addition, the calculation of the wage gap, like that used by OCED, for example, often uses only full-time income, despite the fact that women are generally over-represented among part-time workers. Finally, only non-agricultural economic activity was included. The result can only underestimate women’s contributions and understate the gendered wage gap.
In the case of education, many countries have achieved gender parity, or even better, at lower levels of tertiary education even as class ceilings still hinder advancement, a reality not captured in the gender gap measures. Finally, the measurement of health gaps ignores women’s distinct health needs, including those to do with pregnancy, childbirth, and reproductive choice.
More troubling still are the ‘invisible’ aspects of inequality. Much attention goes to women’s ability to ‘catch up’ to men in the so-called ‘public sphere’ in education, economics, and politics, but none addresses men’s participation in the ‘private sphere’. The Gender Gap Report ignores the division of unpaid labor, including childcare, leaving open the real possibility that even if the economic gap is seemingly closing women will be handicapped by the double day wherein they both engage in paid employment and remain overwhelmingly responsible for unpaid work (for example see Lombardo and Meier, 2008). Further, the Report leaves gendered violence, a major source of oppression and power, simply invisible. Nations are not called to account for systemic violence, such as India’s culture of public rape or Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women. Also conspicuously absent is the nuanced analysis of the intersectional nature of gender and the dynamics of power where race, class, sexuality, disability (etc) are not simply additive but create their own web of oppression and inequality.
While there are some notable benefits to the Global Gender Gap Annual Report, including increased attention from mainstream media and opportunities for year-to- year comparisons, far too much is ultimately ignored or misconstrued. Other reports, notably those by nations to track their compliance with the United Nations Convention to End Discrimination Against Women and the corresponding critiques by feminist organizations, supply useful correctives. In Canada, West Coast Leaf’s annual report card (which you can see here) grades the government of British Columbia on its compliance with the Convention, including access to justice, missing and murdered women, and access to childcare – all elements missing from The Report. Canada’s National report to CEDAW, which can be seen here along side other signatory nations reports, hasn’t been updated since 2007, highlighting the need for reports by nongovernmental organizations. Counter reports are also common in other countries; in the UK, the YWCA attends CEDAW meetings and provides a substantial assessment of the outcome of government policies. Most recently, it has sharply criticized the way that women have been the special victim of the coalition government’s austerity agenda. While reports from official bodies, such as World Economic Forum, provide useful measures of gender equality, they must still be supplemented by external sources of feminist scholarship and investigation.
References and Further reading
Annesley, C. (2007). Lisbon and social Europe: towards a European ‘adult worker model’ welfare system. Journal of European Social Policy, 17(3), 195-205.
Anxo, D., Fagan, C., Smith, M., Letablier, M., & Perraudin, C. (2007) Parental Leave in European Companies. European Foundation for Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.
Brunning, G. & Plantenga, J. (1999). Parental leave and equal opportunities: experiences in eight European countries. Journal of European Social Policy, 9(3), 195-209.
Crompton, R., Lewis S. & Lyonette, C. (2007). Introduction: the unravelling of the ‘male breadwiner’ model – and some of its consequences. (Chapter 1). In Women, Men, Work and Family in Europe. Crompton, R., Lewis, S. and Lyonette, C. (Eds.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Crompton, R. & Lyonette, C. (2005). The new gender essentialism – domestic and family ‘choices’ and their relation to attitudes. The British Journal of Sociology, 56(4), 601-620.
Daly, M. (2005). Gender Mainstreaming in theory and practice. Social Politics, 12(3): 433-450
European Commission. (2010). Strategy for equality between men and women 2010-2015 (Sec(2010)1079, Sec(2010)1080).
Kitterod, R. H. & Pettersen, S. V. (2006). Making up for mothers’ employed working hours? : Housework and childcare among Norwegian fathers. Work employment and Society, 20, 473-492.
Lewis, J. (2006). Work/reconciliation, equal opportunities and social policies: the interpretation of policy trajectories at the EU level and the meaning of gender equality. Journal of European Public Policy, 13(3), 420-437.
Lewis, J. & Guillario (2005). The adult worker model family, gender equality and care: the search for new policy principles and the possibilities and problems of a capabilities approach. Economy and Society, 34(1), 76-104.
Organization of Economically Developed Countries, Social Policy Division, The Family Databse (2013). Gender Pay Gaps for Full Time Workers and Earning Differentials by Education. Retrieved November, 2013 from http://www.oecd.org/els/soc/LMF1.5%20Gender%20pay%20gaps%20for%20full%20time%20workers%20-%20updated%20290712.pdf
United Nations Development Programme. (2009). Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development. Retrieved November 2013 from http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR_2009_EN_Complete.pdf.
United Nations. Convention to End the Discrimination Against Women Country Reports. Retrieved November 2013 from http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/reports.htm.
West Coast Leaf. (2013). CEDAW Report card. Retrieved November 2013 from http://www.westcoastleaf.org/index.php?pageID=178&parentid=29.
World Economic Forum. (2013). The Global Gender Gap Report. Retrieved November 2013 from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2013.pdf