Women Losing Ground in Economic, Political Equality

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 2, 2011 (IPS) - While gender equality ratios have improved in 85 percent of countries over the past six years, economic participation and political empowerment for women has failed to match the steady progress of health and education, says a new report by the World Economic Forum.

The report, "Global Gender Gap", compiled by Ricardo Hausmann from Harvard University, Laura Tyson from University of California, Berkeley and Saadia Zahidi from the World Economic Forum, illustrates the gender-disparity gap between men and women across 135 countries.

Using an international index and data from several organisations such as the International Labour Organisation, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Health Organisation, the report measures the percentage of the gap between men and women across economic, political, educational and health-based criteria.

On average, health and education had the strongest rate of progress, with 96 percent of the health gap closed and 93 percent of the education gap closed. But economic participation only closed 59 percent of the gap and political empowerment closed a mere 18 percent of the gap.

"While it is heartening to note that education and health gaps between the sexes seem to be getting overcome, the same is not true for gaps in economic and political participation and it is important to note that equal access to education does not in itself solve the problems of gender inequality," Yasmeen Hassan, global director at Equality Now in New York, told the IPS.

"In fact, education systems may perpetuate and further entrench gender stereotypes and practices that promote gender inequality," she said. "I'm not surprised that many countries have regressed on gender equality. The global economic recession and rising fundamentalisms has resulted in a feeling of insecurity that manifests itself in a resurgence of patriarchal values and systems and a cutback of women's rights and freedoms."

Growing change

The World Economic Forum released the first report in 2006, to address the need for a consistent measure for gender equality to track a country's progress over time. This edition highlights trends from the past six years and analyses national policies to facilitate female workforce participation.

According to the report, 20 percent of countries surveyed had mandated female corporate board representation and 30 percent had mandated political participation.

"Smaller gender gaps are directly correlated with increased economic competitiveness," said Zahidi, report co-author and senior director and head of the World Economic Forum's Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme. "With the world's attention on job creation and economic growth, gender equality is the key to unlocking potential and stimulating economies."

Based on information from 60 countries, 88 percent of countries have legislation prohibiting gender-based workplace discrimination and less than 45 percent have a national benchmarking tool.

Hausmann, a fellow report co-author and director of the centre for International Development at Harvard University, said the world had come a long way but there was still a long road ahead.

"In Latin America, women have more schooling than men but marriage and motherhood are still not compatible with a fuller economic and political participation of women," said Hausmann.

Gender-based disparities

Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, held the top four spots, having closed between 80 to 85 percent of their gender gaps, while Yemen was the lowest ranking country closing less than 50 percent of its gender gap.

The gender gap worsened in Nigeria, Mali, Colombia, Tanzania and El Salvador. Mali, ranked 132, was positioned at 81 six years ago and the country's gender gap is now less than 60 percent and political empowerment is just 10 percent.

While women hold less than 20 percent of all national decision-making positions, the report revealed some small steps of progression for some countries.

Thailand, ranked 60th, elected its first female prime minister this year and remains in a good position with women making up more than half of tertiary-educated enrolments and high overall labour force participation.

Burundi, ranked 24th, was the only country where the labour force participation rate of women was higher than men. In Africa, Lesotho ranked ninth overall on the list and was the only country to have no gap in education or health, joining Belize and the Philippines as the only other developing countries with the same result.

Future action

The report authors say the most important determinant of a country's competitiveness is its human talent - the skills, education and production of its workforce. With that said, they recommend policy makers to strive for gender equality in each country to maximise competitiveness and development potential, by giving women the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men.

"Gender gaps close when countries recognise the economic and social imperatives. With the right policies, change can happen very quickly," said report co-author Tyson, and the Angela Chan Professor of Global Management, Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley, USA.

While they don't want to set priorities for countries, the authors instead provide a set of data to track gaps on critical indicators for countries to set their own priorities within economic, political and cultural contexts, to seek out the best practices and role models to incorporate gender equality.

"A world where women make up less than 20 percent of the global decision-makers is a world that is missing a huge opportunity for growth and ignoring an untapped reservoir of potential," said Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum.

Hassan says the report needs to also address the women's empowerment within patriarchal systems - not just access.

"What the report does not address is the existence of cultural practices and attitudes and discriminatory laws and policies that may discourage or prohibit women from participating in economic and political fields that continue to be more male dominated," she told IPS.

"So while more women may have more equal access to education and healthcare, they may not be able or encouraged to participate economically and politically."