Where Women Are Treated (Almost) Equally

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Jerry Carual / AFP / Getty

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines

The Global Gender Gap Report
World Economic Forum
; 181 pages

The Gist:

It's not just about equality anymore. A country's economy, health and productivity increase as its gender gap narrows, according to the authors of this study published by the World Economic Forum, the Swiss non-profit that hosts an annual meeting in Davos of world political and business leaders. The study was co-authored by researchers from Harvard and University of California-Berkeley and surveys conditions for the sexes in 130 countries, encompassing more than 90% of the world's population. Nations are scored on how much progress they've made in the areas of jobs, education, politics and health as a measure of gender parity. Within these categories, the authors looked at wages, literacy, seats in government and life expectancy for women, among other factors.

The end result is a ranking that quantifies which countries are making the best progress in giving women equal standing in society with men. The results are not what you might think.

Highlight Reel:

1. Nordic Supremacy: The top four countries in terms of gender equality are Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland — which also nabbed the top spots in the 2007 edition of this report. Norway is on top, in part, thanks to a law that requires the boards of public limited companies be made up of at least 40% women.

2. Progress, but not everywhere: Of those countries surveyed in 2007 and 2008, 87 narrowed their gender gap, while the gap widened in 41. While 24 countries have closed the gender gap in education, no country in the world has true gender equality across all the categories measured, according to the data.

3. The greater standing women have, the more everyone benefits: Industrialized countries can still grow their economies substantially by elevating women. Closing the employment gender gap "would have huge economic implications for the developed economies, boosting US GDP by as much as 9%, Eurozone GDP by as much as 13% and Japanese GDP by as much as 16%," according to the report.

4. Female leaders inspire whole societies (and help pad the numbers): The authors assigned heavy points to countries where women were in charge of government. Countries with female presidents or prime ministers include: #2 Finland, #5 New Zealand (Prime Minister Helen Clark was recently voted out of office), #6 Philippines and #8 Ireland.

5. America still working on it: The U.S. is ranked #27 in this year's report, up from 31 in 2007 but down from 23 in 2006. America ranks highest in "economic participation and opportunity" at #12 and "educational attainment" where it's tied for #1. The U.S. passed Canada, which slipped to #31 from #18 in 2007.

6. Country-by-country changes: France made the biggest jump in the rankings, moving from #51 in 2007 to #15 in 2008. Trinidad and Tobago was the highest ranked Latin American country. Guatemala's gap widened considerably, with the country falling from #61 in 2007 to #113 in 2008. Israel had the highest score in the Middle East, with Kuwait coming in second for the region and Yemen — which has closed just 47% of its gender gap — coming in last at #130 overall. Only two African countries are in the top 20, Lesotho #16 and Mozambique #18; big drops in ranks were seen in Zambia, Angola, Ethiopia, Benin and Chad.

The Lowdown:

The authors of the study don't take into account the overall economic development of a country, only the access that men and women have to resources. This levels the playing field between economic powerhouses like the U.S. and third-world nations like Ethiopia. The result is that countries where there are more high-paying jobs for everyone are not given an advantage over countries where there is little economic opportunity. It's easy to understand the thinking here — fairness, basically — but the data does not paint an overall picture of how women are faring in their daily lives in one country versus the next. It's hard not to argue that better economic, health and educational conditions overall benefit everyone, men and women alike.

The Verdict: Skim

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