How are the U.S. and Kazakhstan alike?

Hint: It has to do with gender inequality.

By Carol Lloyd
November 9, 2007 5:45AM (UTC)
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The World Economic Forum today released its 2007 Global Gender Gap Report and it's full of surprising and not so surprising details about how women are faring around the globe. Topping the list of 128 countries is Sweden followed by Norway, Finland and Iceland. Beyond those egalitarian northerners, New Zealand and the Philippines nabbed spots 5 and 6, respectively, by edging out Germany which ranked 5th in 2006. (We've written about the Philippines' usually powerful female executive class and high levels of education among women before, so its prominence didn't surprise us.)

Just below the top of the list come more of the usual suspects: affluent nations like Denmark, the U.K., Ireland, Spain, Canada and Australia, as well as some fast-developing newer EU members like Latvia and Lithuania, along with a couple of notable developing nations like Sri Lanka and Cuba. The bottom of the index features an equally predictable group: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Chad, Egypt, Morocco ... places where women are expected to play traditional roles in accordance with Sharia law or misogynous tribal conventions like female genital mutilation.


Though the new report makes for tasty cocktail banter, the WEF's mission to quantitatively measure gender parity is much more than economic party games. The Swiss-based think tank started the index in 2006 and attempts to measure gender parity in four areas: economic participation, education, political empowerment and health. As Richard Hausmann, one of the report's authors, put it on an accompanying video clip, "What doesn't get measured doesn't get done." And since the WEF can document that the countries with the most gender equality are also the most prosperous, the gender gap index is a powerful tool for showing nations just how they're doing in this economically influential, now quantifiable arena. Although more affluent countries tend to top the list, the WEF has taken pains not to discriminate against poorer nations, but to simply measure inequality within each country.

So, take a guess: What country's gender inequities are bigger than those of Namibia, Croatia, Lesotho and Moldova and just barely narrower than Kazakhstan? (Insert gratuitous Borat joke here.) The good ole U.S. of A. Since 2006, we dropped from an overall ranking of 23 to 31 -- from being surrounded by other first-world nations to nations that have far shorter histories of democracy or feminism.

How in this year of Madam Speaker and a possible Mrs. President could we find ourselves pedaling backward? In part it's because other nations are making greater gains. But it's also because in some very measurable ways, things are getting worse for women. While the index did measure American women's gains in political empowerment (still garnering a suboptimal ranking of 69 globally), the nation lost much more ground in the area of economic participation and opportunity. Despite the ratio of women in the workforce increasing since 2006, pay gaps have widened substantially and the percentage of female senior managers fell enough to drag the overall ranking down. All of which only serves to confirm many feminists' skeptical response to Hillary Clinton. As any woman from Pakistan (ranked 126 out of 128) can tell you, electing a female head of state doesn't guarantee that you'll get equal pay for equal work.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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