Women in the World: World Economic Forum Index Shows Some Gender Progress

World Economic Forum’s 2011 global gender gap index shows some progress for women. By Jesse Ellison.

Tim Pannell / Corbis

The World Economic Forum on Tuesday released its annual Global Gender Gap Index, a nearly 400-page report evaluating, assessing, and, of course, ranking ongoing gender inequity—and progress eliminating it—in 135 countries around the world.

Much of this year’s ranking covers well-trodden ground: Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden occupy the top four spots, as they have every year since 2006, when the report was first released. Likewise, the top of the list is dominated by the developed, industrialized countries of the West—with exceptions, of course—while the bottom skews toward poorer, often war-torn nations in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

What’s notable, in fact, is not the 2011 list itself, but the cumulative result of six years’ worth of surveys, and the way in which various countries have moved up and down on the overall rankings. Lesotho, for example, ranked ninth this year, up from the 43rd spot in 2006. The tiny, landlocked sub-Saharan nation is, as it turns out, one of just seven countries to have completely closed their health and education gaps. And while the United States has yet to crack the top 10, it is continuing to climb, albeit slowly, in rank—moving up to the 17th spot, up from the 19th last year, and 31st in 2009.

“The consistent messaging we’re seeing is that by and large countries are making progress,” says the World Economic Forum’s Saadia Zahidi, one of the report’s authors. “Though15 percent are either stagnating or falling behind, and countries at the very top have by no means closed their gender gaps, the pace of change is relatively fast for some countries. Those are the ones to learn from.”

Zahidi is quick to mention—and the report itself takes great pains to point this out as well—that the attempt here is to examine and rank the extent to which countries have closed the gap between male and female opportunity and achievement, not the overall level of success. “It ranks countries according to their proximity to gender equality rather than to women’s empowerment,” as the index explains. “Our aim is to focus on whether the gap between women and men in the chosen variables has declined, rather than whether women are ‘winning’ the ‘battle of the sexes.’”

The method is an attempt to strip away mitigating factors, such as the overall economic climate and GDP—an attempt, really, to level the playing field. “Is it really very helpful to be telling Bangladesh that they are ranked lower than Sweden in terms of women’s educational attainment?” Zahidi says. “They kind of know that.” What’s more interesting, not to mention meaningful, she says, is comparing gaps, as opposed to levels—measuring, in other words, the opportunities available to girls as opposed to boys in a given country, rather than the level of educational attainment available to girls in a poor country compared to a rich one.

What the resulting analysis tells us is an increasingly familiar refrain as well: the countries that consistently do well in these rankings—even when factoring out larger economic indicators—are those that have both made investments in women’s health and education, and taken steps to ensure that those women have equal access to political and economic participation. And it’s only by removing barriers to full participation, as Zahidi points out, that countries are able to see the return on this investment.

The economic incentive to female empowerment is a popular one at the moment, and the WEF’s 2011 report is no exception. But it is a compelling argument nonetheless. “A country’s competitiveness depends on its human talent—the skills, education and productivity of its workforce,” the report’s authors write. “Because women account for one-half of a country’s potential talent base, a nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its women.”