The Guest Blog

Vive the gender gap

So it’s that time of year again. The time of lists and league tables not the least amongst them being the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index Report weforum.org.The Global Gender Gap Index introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006, provides a framework for capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities and tracking their progress. The Index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education- and health- based criteria, and provides country rankings that allow for comparisons across regions and income groups, and over time. By providing a comprehensive framework for benchmarking global gender gaps, the Report reveals those countries that are role models in dividing resources equitably between women and men, regardless of their level of resources or socio-economic development.

The Global Gender Gap Index ranks countries according to their proximity to gender equality rather than to women’s empowerment. The aim is to focus on whether the gap

between women and men in the chosen variables has declined, rather than whether women are “winning” the “battle of the sexes”. Hence, the Index rewards countries that reach the point where outcomes for women equal those for men, but it neither rewards nor penalizes cases in which women are outperforming men in particular variables. Overall economic empowerment and political voice remain the areas of greatest inequality.

The report claims that low gender gaps are directly correlated with high economic competitiveness ‘Women and girls must be treated equally if a country is to grow and progress’.

The top ten has not changed very much with some traditional winners and some less expected entries:

Iceland (1)
Norway (2)
Finland(3)
Sweden (4)
New Zealand(5)
Ireland(6)
Denmark(7)
Lesotho (8)
Philippines (9)
and Switzerland (10)

Switzerland jumped into the top ten for the first time though these figures do not yet reflect its majority female cabinet. The US improved its score squeaking into the top twenty at nineteen, but the media attention has focused on France’s crash to forty-six from a 2009 level of eighteen which has grabbed all the headlines. France being placed not only lower than the US and most of Europe but also… shock & horror… after Kazakhstan and Jamaica.

The New York Times considers that the situation of France ‘crystallizes the paradox facing many women across the developed world in the early 21st century. They have more say over their sexuality (in France birth control and abortion are legal and subsidized), they have overtaken men in education and are catching up in the labour market – though not in terms of closing the gender wage gap – but few make it to the top of business or politics.’

But the gender police should not get too excited about the decline of France. Its topple down the league table caused by the departure of a few female ministers from the cabinet should rather make us wary of freighting this and similar indices – seductive as they are – with too much significance.

What these indices do capture are the quantitative changes taking place at the most senior levels of government, parliament, and business. A resignation, a retirement, a demise, a decision to opt for work life balance can bring the whole country toppling down the charts.

The country profiles in the Report provide more analysis but few people get beyond an anxious scrutiny of the ranking table.

The new Swiss cabinet where women outnumber men was not regarded by informed observers as predicting or indicating enormous changes in the life of Swiss women as it has been stated by many observers that anyway the power lies in the hands of business and commerce where women hardly feature. Dominating the Cabinet is the best they can do.

Cynicism has often been expressed about the 48% of women in Parliament in Rwanda obtained by the introduction of quotas for its reflection or lack thereof of the situation of women in the country overall. But several countries in the top ten have introduced legislation to even up the numbers particularly in corporate life. Iceland, rated the most gender equal country in the world across all the dimensions has introduced legislation to force companies with more than 50 staff to ensure that their management is made up of at least 40% women by September 2013.

Quotas and ‘temporary special measures’ have their place. Whilst it is common to say that quotas demean women, and produce women in leadership positions who are inadequate to the task, it is not often pointed out that it does not take quotas to produce inadequate male leaders. Perhaps that is an indication of superiority of a sort.

The report elides over gaps in ‘variables’ where ‘women are outperforming men’ …..… child, sick, elderly and family care, managing the daily life and needs of the entire household…… which is surely the ‘elephant in the room’ as ever.

Is it possible that women’s ‘over-performance’ in these fields affects their performance in other more public arenas?

It would be interesting next year to have figures on some of those ‘variables’? Even making a start with data on governments’ legislation on parental and paternity leave, and the numbers of men taking advantage to ‘out-perform’ in that area would be significant progress towards a more balanced picture of the gender gap.

Dr Jane Hailé is an independent consultant to governments, the UN, the EC & others, specializing in gender, human rights and development. She facilitates online training in academic & non-academic settings. Her website can be found at gendercentric.org.

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