No Country On Earth Has Closed The Gender Gap

While no nations have yet managed to bring about full equality between the sexes, women are making strides in closing the gender gap in societies around the world, especially in the political sphere. That’s especially true in–no surprise–Nordic countries, where it is very cold, but otherwise things are very nice.

That’s according to the latest “Global Gender Gap Index,” a country-by-country measurement the World Economic Forum has been producing since 2006. The WEF’s measurements found that Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland)–which consistently have ranked at the top of the list over the years–are coming closest to true gender parity. Four of those countries have closed between 81% and 87% of their gender gaps and “thus serve as models and useful benchmarks for international comparison,” the report says (in comparison Yemen, the lowest ranked countries, has closed only a little over half of the gender gap).

Around the world, however, while the central findings show continued improvements, these changes are incremental. “The pace of change is slow,” the 2013 index, released today, reads.

Of the 110 countries the WEF has surveyed every year since 2006, 86% have gradually improved their score on the index, which includes measures for economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. (The index is not tied to females’ actual levels of income or education, but rather, to the disparity they face compared to men in the same nation.)

However, fewer than 10 countries, including Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Saudi Arabia, have the distinction of improving by 10% or more on the Index in the last seven years. Sixty three nations have improved by less than 5%. And 14% have declined.

Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden have ranked at the top of the index for most years, and Denmark is in the top 10. These nations display “gender parity” in primary and secondary education, and women actually dominate in higher education. Today, women now make up the majority of the high-skilled workforce in this region. The report notes that while many developed economies have succeeded in closing the gender gap in education, few have succeeded in maximizing the “returns from this investment” by increasing economic participation to the same levels.

So why are Nordic countries a woman’s paradise?

“On the whole, these economies have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in high female employment, more shared participation in childcare, more equitable distribution of labour at home, better work-life balance for both women and men and in some cases a boost to declining fertility rates,” the report says.

In the region, female labor force participation rates are among the highest in the world and salary gaps are the smallest. Policies include generous federally-mandated parental leave benefits and post-maternity reentry programs. As a result, somewhat amazingly, both national birth rates and rates of female participation in the workforce are rising at the same time, and faster than other developed countries, such as Korea, Japan, and Germany.

These countries also have “top-down” approaches to promoting equality in this region: In Norway, since 2008, publicly listed companies have been required to have 40% of each sex on the board of directors. At 44.7%, Sweden has the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world, as many political parties have made it a priority to find female leaders.

The U.S. ranks overall 23rd in the world (compared to 22nd last year) in gender equality, but there are large differences across the categories measured. For example, the U.S. ties for number 1 in “educational attainment” with a number of countries, and has basically closed the gender gap in health as well (technically it is number 33, but it is just behind 32 countries that tie for No. 1).

In political empowerment, however, the U.S. is ranked a woeful 63rd out of a total of 136 countries listed, and in economic participation it is only ranked sixth–a sad figure considering the position of the U.S. as a leading world economy (though it is improved from No. 8 last year). The United States’s maternity leave laws are pretty terrible compared to many other developed and even emerging market countries. There are no federal or state laws mandating maternity or paternity leave, though up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave are available.

The report is extremely detailed, and also breaks down some of the nations, such as Yemen and Pakistan, where the gender gaps are the most extreme, and countries where there has been major deterioration in equality over the years, such as Jordan, Kuwait, and Mali. You can read more in the report and explore the interactive graphic above.