Bridging the Gender Gap

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The Global Gender Gap Report
World Economic Forum
Ricardo Hausmann, Harvard University; Laura D. Tyson, University of California, Berkeley; and Saadia Zahidi, World Economic Forum
205 pages

The Gist:
The global recession has unseated its government and clobbered its economy — even McDonald's is jumping ship — but when it comes to gender equality, Iceland is the world's beacon. The tiny island nation tops the World Economic Forum's 2009 Gender Gap Index, the group's fourth annual assessment of global equality between the sexes. With more women elected to Parliament and advances in female economic and educational participation, Iceland leapfrogged its larger Nordic neighbors, edging Finland, Norway (last year's No. 1) and Sweden to lead an all-Scandinavian top four — an honor determined by measuring the gap between female and male economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment and quality of health in 134 countries. Elsewhere on the list, South Africa and Lesotho surged into the top 10, while the Philippines led Asia's entrants at No. 9 despite falling in the rankings for the first time in four years. The U.S. slipped four places to 31st, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan checked in near the very bottom of the list.

Highlight Reel:
1. In the regional rankings, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands lead the way: "In the overall Index scores, Oceania continues to hold the top spot, followed closely by Western Europe and North America. All three regions have closed over 70% of the gender gap. They are followed by Latin America and Eastern Europe, each having closed over 67% of the gender gap. Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia come next, each region having closed around 65% of the gender gap. The Middle East and North Africa region occupies the last place, having closed approximately 58% of its gender gap."

2. Women in the U.S. enjoyed fewer improvements than their international counterparts, even though men have been laid off in greater numbers during the recession: "[U.S.] labor force participation of women falls from 70% to 69% and the percentage of women among professional and technical workers falls from 57% to 56%. These losses offset the gains made in the estimated earned income of women and the percentage of women among legislators, senior officials and managers. While the overall score of the United States in political empowerment remained the same as previous years, as other countries make progress, the United States has slipped [in the index]."

3. In much of Europe, women are thriving, though stalwarts like the U.K., Germany and France took steps back: "Six European countries are among the 10 highest ranked countries in the world, and 13 are among the top 20. These include the Netherlands(11), Germany (12), Switzerland (13), Latvia (14), the United Kingdom (15), Spain (17) and France(18), in addition to the five Nordic countries and Ireland."

The Lowdown:
Considering that women make up half the world's population, "over time," the authors write, "a nation's competitiveness depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its female talent." That's just part of the reason why even incremental strides toward eradicating gender inequity should be hailed. But while more than two-thirds of the 115 countries covered in the report since its inception in 2006 have posted gains—particularly in educational attainment and quality of health—females worldwide still lag far behind in economic participation and political empowerment. The report underscores yet again that while women have won critical battles in the struggle for equality, the war is far from over.

The Verdict: Skim