NEW YORK — In a year of some major successes for women — the Nobel Peace Prize, the commanding performances of Angela Merkel and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the end of men-first in the line of succession to the British throne — a new worldwide study concludes that women remain well behind men in two crucial areas: economic equality and political power.
Women hold fewer than 20 percent of all decision-making national positions, says the World Economic Forum’s sixth annual Global Gender Gap Report 2011, released on Tuesday at the organization’s office in New York. And while 85 percent of the 135 countries in the survey, representing more than 93 percent of the world’s population, made some progress in women’s health and education levels, relatively few showed marked advances for women in economic and political parity since the first survey came out in 2006. Tuesday’s conference focused on the need for governments and the private sector to implement and enforce laws and policies that promote women’s economic and political roles.
“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 executive chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, echoing a view that is gaining ground at least among big multinationals. I.B.M., for example, just added walk to its talk on women, appointing Virginia M. Rometty as its first female chief executive.
The World Economic Forum is not the only body doing comparative gender studies. In September, the World Bank released its annual report, noting unprecedented gains by women in education, health and access to jobs and livelihoods but gaps in female death rates, pay and decision-making in households and society. Caroline Anstey, managing director of the World Bank, stressed that women were still only “a subgroup of a subgroup” for the Group of 20, yet it is at such lofty summits that the need to invest in women — and the rewards of doing so — should be emphasized.
“These reports help us look over time at changes in countries and show us where the gaps are and where to look to improve business practices,” Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders and a senior adviser on diversity at Goldman Sachs, said in an interview. “We are seeing progress in education and health, but we’re not seeing much progress on the economic and political side, which is a big concern.”
The World Economic Forum’s study ranks 135 nations according to progress made in women’s education, health, economic clout and political empowerment. Last year’s top 10 — Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, the Philippines, Lesotho and Switzerland — continue to hold their spots, but there was movement below them, notably Cuba climbing back to No. 20. Among others in the top 20 are several European countries, South Africa, Britain and the United States, which landed at 17, hardly anything to boast about in a country that prides itself on being a leader in women’s rights.
France poses even more questions. Although it is at the top in education and health, it ranks only middling on women’s economic and political influence. Saadia Zahidi of the World Economic Forum, a co-author of the report, explained in an interview that France scored 3.48 on a scale of 1 to 7 in the ability of Frenchwomen to rise to positions of enterprise leadership.
That, she said, suggested that France had a “corporate culture that does not encourage the rise of women” and was an indicator that helping women to move up the ladder “is not a major part of corporate policies.”
The report establishes an overall correlation between the size of a nation’s economy and its gender gap, but there are anomalies. For instance, the Philippines, among the poorest countries in Asia, scored high in all survey categories, outdoing some of the world’s hottest economies.
If there is a country that upends the correlation between a nation’s economy and women’s progress, it is Cuba. With a dismal economy, limited economic freedom and a decaying socialist regime, the island is the only Latin American and Caribbean country in the top 20. Cuban women rank high in education, health and economic and political equality, filling professional and technical positions in the ministries and government-run enterprises.
In contrast, Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest economy, moved up three notches to 82 thanks to improved wages for women and some progress in education and health, but not so much in economic and political influence. Dilma Rousseff, who became Brazil’s first female president this year, may yet further close those gender gaps.
“It’s not a given that countries with low levels of education cannot have women in political decision-making positions,” Ms. Zahidi noted. India ranks near the bottom in education, health and economic participation but ranks high in women’s political empowerment.
Against small forward steps elsewhere, large swaths of the Arab world, Asia and Africa show alarmingly low levels of female health, literacy and economic and political influence. Lesotho is the only sub-Saharan African nation to have no gap in education and health; South Africa owes much of its high ranking to women’s political empowerment. In the Arab world, the gender gap is so wide that the United Arab Emirates enjoys the best record with a lowly rank of 103, while Saudi Arabia and Yemen hug the bottom rungs.
Asked to gauge the impact of the gender studies, Ilene H. Lang, the president and chief executive of Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit women-centered organization with 500 international members, said, “These reports are important because they shine a light on how half the world’s population fares.”
Catalyst’s own research, she said, showed that women’s progress in business had not increased perceptibly and “we are far from parity in leadership, which is critical especially in this unstable economic environment.” Catalyst’s studies show that “companies with more women in leadership tend to outperform those with fewer — and not by a little.”
Despite some disappointing findings, Ms. Zahidi remains optimistic. “The next wave of change will come from how to actually close gender gaps. We know how to measure them, we know why it’s important to close them, and there’s some new research on policy and on practices in business. That’s going to be the game changer.”
Originally published by the New York Times on November 1, 2011.
Originally published by the New York Times on November 1, 2011.