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The World Economic Forum has just come out with their latest data on global gender equality, and the short version could well be this old Beatles lyric: “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better. A little better, all the time. (It can’t get more worse.)”
I talked with Saadia Zahidi, a Senior Director at the WEF and their Head of Gender Parity and Human Capital. Yes, it’s getting better. Out of the 110 countries they’ve been tracking since 2006, 95 have improved and just 14 have fallen behind (a single country, Sweden, has remained the same). But that’s partly because in some places, there was nowhere to go but up.
And not everyone has improved at the same rates, or for the same reasons.
For instance, in Latin America, several countries surged ahead as more women were elected to political office. That was a trend in Europe, too – much of the improvement in Europe’s scores was due not to women’s increased workforce participation, but instead to the increasingly female face of public leadership. Although those numbers are still very low overall, increasingly women are being appointed (and somewhat more rarely, elected) to public office. “Looking at eight years worth of data, a lot of the changes are coming from the political end of the spectrum, and to some extent the economic one. So much of the [workforce] talent is now female, you would expect the changes to be on the economic front but that’s not what’s happening,” said Zahidi.
And sometimes equality is just another word for poverty. For instance, look at Malawi. They’re one of three sub-Saharan countries where women outstrip men in the workforce, with 85% of women working compared with 80% of men. (The other two are Mozambique and Burundi.) These are low-skilled, low-income professions — just 1% of each gender attends college, and Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries. This is a bleak contextual picture… and yet Malawi is number one in the world in terms of women’s participation in the labor force.
Then there’s the Philippines. They’re ranked fifth in the world on gender parity because even though they rank 16th the world in terms of the percentage of women working, “the quality of women’s participation is high,” says Zahidi. Women make up 53% of senior leaders, the wage gap is relatively low, and they’ve had a female head of state for 16 out of the last 50 years – which, among other factors, makes them 10th in the world in terms of women’s political empowerment. They’ve also largely closed the gap on health and education. They, too, are a reminder that the WEF’s data tracks gender gaps – not development.
But there are a few lessons to be learned from the wealthy Nordic countries at the top of the heap. “The distance between them and the countries that follow them is starting to grow larger because of the efforts they’ve made,” says Zahidi, crediting their progressive policies on parental leave and childcare as examples of the infrastructure that makes it easier for women to participate in the workforce. When the WEF began doing this survey eight years ago, no countries were cracking the 80% mark in terms of women’s parity with men (where a perfect score is 100%). Now, some countries at the top of the list are up to 86%.
“Change can be much faster – or much slower – depending on the actions taken by leaders.”
I asked Zahidi about the across-the-board improvements. Were countries and companies learning from one another? Or were they each proceeding on their own? “This is not something that there’s generally been a lot of exchange on,” she conceded, “But one of the the things the World Economic Forum is trying to do is create that exchange.” They’ve developed a repository of best practices detailing how other companies and countries have overcome their gender gaps. Nowhere are women fully equal across all the realms the WEF tracks — health, education, the economy, and politics.
“To accelerate change, you need to have that sharing of information between companies,” she says. “Thus far, [progress] may not have been based on information exchange but it will have to be in the future — if we want to avoid reinventing the wheel.”
Where does your own country fit in? Take a look at the graphic below. The thick in the background shows the overall equality score – the 2006 score is in gray, and the 2013 improvement is indicated in light blue. (Countries that worsened or stayed the same are only in gray; countries that were not tracked in 2006 are only blue.) The narrow, darker blue line in the foreground indicates how much the country’s relative ranking has changed in the last seven years. Some countries have surged ahead, pushing other countries down on the list.