Global Women: Good News, Bad News
And the winner is… Iceland! According to the 2009 Global Gender Gap report of the World Economic Forum, the land of glaciers and puffins, population 319,000, is the most gender egalitarian country on earth, with women having closed 80 percent of the gap with men. Finland (2), Norway (3), Sweden (4) and Denmark (7) are in the top ten too, as is New Zealand (5). You could try harder, Spain (17) and Germany (12)–in 2007 you were in the top ten. And O, Canada: 25. Very sad.
The WEF measures the gap between women and men in four areas–economic activity, education, health and political representation–regardless of the absolute level of resources. Thus South Africa (6) and Lesotho (10) make the top ten, despite widespread poverty, illiteracy and a raging AIDS epidemic. The way the WEP measures the gap is a bit strange. Among the items not measured are reproductive rights (abortion is banned in Ireland (8), and the Philippines (9), where birth control is also hard to find, so how equal is that?); sexual violence (South Africa has the world’s highest rate of reported rape); and legal inequality, to say nothing of cultural practices like forced marriage, child marriage and female genital mutilation, and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women. Thus, in Lesotho, with one of the world’s highest rates of HIV, it’s the desperately poor grandmothers who are raising throngs of orphaned grandchildren. Still, let’s pause to cheer the fact that there has been measurable improvement for the female population in much of the world. As the report notes, "Out of the 115 countries covered in the report since 2006, more than two-thirds have posted gains in overall index scores, indicating that the world in general has made progress towards equality between men and women."
Indeed, progress can be lightning swift: South Africa advanced sixteen places, partly because a new government brought in more women. Iceland increased women’s representation in Parliament from 33 percent to 43 percent in just one year (fun fact–last year Icelandic voters elected Johanna Sigurdardottir, the world’s first openly lesbian prime minister, who returned the favor by appointing five women to her interim cabinet, the most in the country’s history). Compare that with the United States, where it took all of the 2000s to drag Congress from 13 percent to 17 percent. Indeed, we rank 61 in political representation, for an overall mediocre score of 31, sandwiched between Lithuania and Namibia. The bottom third of the list is filled with Middle Eastern, Asian and African nations where progress for women is slow or nonexistent: India, for example, gets pretty good press as a rapidly modernizing society, but it comes in at 114, down from 113 in 2008–closer than you might think to notoriously oppressive Iran (128) or Pakistan (132), to say nothing of Chad (133) and Yemen (last place).