Measuring gender inequality

November 4, 2013

Tithi Bhattacharya analyses the findings of a report on the gender gap internationally.

THE WORLD Economic Forum has just published its 2013 Global Gender Gap Report. It is a detailed study of the state of gender in 133 countries around the world. At 388 pages--of which over 300 pages are data charts, tables and graphs--it is certainly a praiseworthy effort to provide a comprehensive picture of gender in our contemporary world, with the help of hard empirical evidence.

There are several findings in this report that deserve to be highlighted. There are also some implications of their own findings that the authors of the report do not emphasize and that deserve our attention. What follows, then, is an effort to summarize both what is in the report, alongside of some facts that the findings reveal.


The report, as it name suggests, seeks to measure gender-based disparities on a global scale tracking the performance of nations across "four key areas: health, education, economics and politics." The results are based on information such as:

(a) Economic Participation and Opportunity: how big are wage gaps between men and women or what is the ratio between men and women in various professions.

Women at work in a Chinese factory
Women at work in a Chinese factory

(b) Educational Achievement: the gap between women and men's access to education.

(c) Health and Survival: the differences between women's and men's health--for example, sex ratio at birth, life expectancy, years lost to violence or malnutrition, etc.

(d) Political Empowerment: the gap between men and women in positions of political decision-making.


The five countries with the best record of gender parity are Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Philippines.

Iceland holds the top spot for the fifth year in a row and "continues to be the country with the narrowest gender gap in the world."

The U.S. is at number 23, falling behind several countries that it has tried to bomb or colonize, such as Cuba and Nicaragua, or moralize at, such as Burundi. (Official U.S. government goals in Burundi are "to help the people of Burundi realize a just and lasting peace based upon democratic principles and sustainable economic development.")

The U.S. also is only at number 17 in gender parity out of the 49 high-income countries that have been measured--a rather poor showing for a country that tops the chart when it comes to high incomes. According to one recent study, incomes among the top 1 percent in the U.S. rose by 31.4 percent between 2009 and 2012, while incomes for everyone else grew just 0.4 percent. This wealth is obviously not going toward ensuring gender equality.

China, the emerging economic competitor to the U.S., is at number 69 with a steady deterioration in its gender relations since 2010. China and the U.S. have the greatest number of millionaire households, and China has seen one of the biggest economic booms in recent years. It is thus alarming that in China, just like in the U.S., the sole beneficiaries of this boom has been the rich. The disparity is particularly clear in certain key areas: for instance, the report ranks China at 133, almost to the very bottom of all the countries surveyed, in the Health and Survival category.

Indeed, some of the leading affluent nations perform very poorly on the "Health and Survival" Category. Israel, for example, is at 93 falling below the country it demonizes regularly: Iran!

The five countries with the poorest record for gender parity are Mauritania, Syria, Chad, Pakistan and Yemen. Not to let the national ruling classes of these countries off the hook, but it's important to bear in mind that these countries have all been the victim of devastating imperialist policies and violence from the West. Along with colonialism, drone strikes and International Monetary Fund demands, we can also add the resultant gender disparity to the list of the West's "gifts" to these countries.


The case of the Philippines is one that is unique and stands out on this report. At number five, it has been ranked very high and follows the four top Nordic countries.

Over the years, the report notes, the country has climbed three places--from eighth position to fifth--and was the best performing country in Asia. The report says, "Philippines is the only country in Asia and the Pacific that has fully closed the gender gap in both education and health."

While elite policy makers in the Philippines have received this news with enthusiasm, activists on the ground are far more skeptical.

In an interview with a Philippine newspaper, Dr. Junice Demetrio Melgar, executive director of the NGO Likhaan which works on reproductive rights, remarked, "Frankly, I don't understand the standards they used...Filipino women continue to suffer the consequences of different forms of discrimination. Filipino women's enjoyment of their human and sexual and reproductive rights continues to be obstructed."

Melgar pointed out that the Philippines has one of the highest incidences of unintended pregnancies (54 percent), teenage pregnancies, unsafe abortion (610,000 a year), stagnant contraceptive prevalence rate and maternal mortality rate.

"We're one of the few countries," Melgar said, "that cannot meet MDG (Millennium Development Goal set by the UN) by 2015. In fact, with 221 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, we're way, way behind our target of 52."

Melgar is right to be worried about the "standards" used by the authors of this report. The framework used in this report is often problematic.

Consider, for instance, the report's understanding of "political empowerment"--which is one of the subindexes used to examine the gender gap. The authors only take into account the gap between men and women "at the highest level of decision-making, through the ratio of women to men in minister-level positions and...parliamentary positions."

This is at best inadequate and at worst a deeply flawed approach, as this is essentially measuring the gender gap among elites in society. Women who reach these political offices usually come from the upper classes and their access to resources may not match but can certainly be close to the men of their class.

But if ruling-class women have over the years managed to wrest concessions from the men of their class this in no way indicates a robust health for gender relations for the vast majority of women in society.

Historical roots

The origins of the World Economic Forum help explain some of the shortcomings of this report. The WEF came into being in 1971 when a group of European business leaders, sponsored by the European Commission and several European industrial associations, formed it, hoping to influence policy-making.

The stated goal of the organization's first chair, Klaus Schwab, then professor of Business Policy at the University of Geneva, was "how European firms could catch up with U.S. management practices."

Given its deep roots in bourgeois organizations and priorities, the report can only "report" on certain aspects of gender relationships, but has no understanding of what causes gender disparity or what effective steps can be taken to fix the problems.

To give one example of how the strength of the report's facts far outshine the "conclusions" the authors themselves try to draw from those facts, the authors write, in noting the consistent performance of the Nordic countries as leaders in gender parity:

[T]hese economies have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in more women in the workplace, more shared participation in child care, more equitable distribution of labor at home, better work-life balance for both women and men, and, in some cases, a boost to waning fertility rates.

These are incisive and accurate observations. What the report does not state is that for most of these countries, the above steps for ensuring an equitable gender balance were made possible due to these countries' strong welfare states. All boast elaborate social safety nets combined with universal access to free health care and public education for all.

The authors of the report, however, hold a different view. They argue that "countries and companies" can be "competitive only if they develop attract and retain the best talent, both male and female," and that it is important to "create workplaces where the best talent can flourish."

"A country's competitiveness," they further stress, "depends on its human talent--the skills, education and productivity of its workforce." In taking this approach, they implicitly put the onus of gender parity on capitalism--on a better, kinder and perhaps gentler capitalism that encourages the "productivity" of its workers alongside of appreciating their "talents" and "education"

This, as we know, is a pipe dream. Capital will pay heed to the worker's "welfare" only when the working class has the organizational strength to demand and defend such gains.

It's no surprise, then--and a fact not mentioned in the report--that the vast majority of workers in top four Nordic countries in the report belong to labor unions. Union density in 2010 was: 69.9 percent in Finland, 68.3 percent in Sweden and 54.8 percent in Norway.

Compare this to the 11.9 percent figure for the U.S.! Put differently: it is the more equitable distribution of wealth and resources within these countries that makes possible those impressive results regarding gender parity--not the kindness of "companies" or capitalism.

Despite the report's weak framework, the facts themselves make it an extremely valuable resource for scholars and activists writing about and struggling for gender justice. Don't be deterred by all the numbers, they can be made to reveal important stories!

Further Reading

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