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Worldwide Gender Gap Widens for the First Time in 10 Years

New findings from the World Economic Forum show the world has slipped backward on gender equality for the first time since 2006, and it could take more than 200 years to close the economic gap between men and women.

Written by Megan Clement Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Iceland is the world’s most gender-equal country for the third year in a row. R. Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images

The gender gap has widened for the first time in a decade, a new report from the World Economic Forum has found, and it will take 217 years to reach economic parity at the current rates of progress.

Each year, the forum ranks countries based on inequality between men and women in four areas: health, education, economic opportunity and political representation. Overall, the gap between men and women stands at 32 percent in 2017, up from 31.7 percent last year.

Iceland was ranked as the world’s most gender-equal country for the ninth year in a row. Rwanda was the highest-ranking African country in fourth place, while Nicaragua, ranked 10th last year, rose to sixth place in 2017.

Canada jumped from 35th place in 2016 to 16th this year, largely due to its new gender-equal cabinet (although its parliament comprises only 26 percent women). France, where new president Emmanuel Macron has also appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, rose from 17th to 11th.

The lowest-ranked countries were Syria, Chad and Yemen.

Vesselina Stefanova Ratcheva, data lead of the World Economic Forum’s education, gender and work initiative, says the overall widening by 0.3 percent represents a significant change. “It is a fair widening, given the progress the world had been making over the past decade,” Ratcheva told News Deeply.

“On the health and education pillars we’re very near to parity across a lot of economies, and across the world on average,” she says. “But there are more stubborn gaps that remain, especially when it comes to economic participation.”

Economics and Politics Lag Behind

While the report’s authors estimate it will take 217 years to close the global economic gap between men and women, this figure varies significantly by region: Western Europe could close its gap by 2064 at current rates, but in the Middle East and North Africa, the disparity won’t close for another 580 years.

Ratcheva says that as salaries grew overall worldwide, women’s wages often did not keep up with men’s, leading to a drop in rankings for countries such as the Philippines (10th in 2017) and South Africa (19th).

Political participation represents the biggest hurdle: 77 percent of the political gap still remains to be closed, though the report’s authors say progress is accelerating.

“Women are still in [a] minority in all but two parliaments in the world,” Drude Dahlerup, professor of political science at Stockholm University, says. Those countries are Rwanda and Bolivia.

Dahlerup says politics is the hardest gap to shift, because male politicians tend to look after their own. “Political parties, first and foremost, see to the interests of the incumbent men.”

A True Measure of Gender Equality?

Critics of the annual gender gap report say it does not provide a realistic representation of what life is like for women in a particular country. The report’s authors themselves note that they can only measure gaps between women and men in countries, so if both genders are doing poorly, a country can still achieve a high rank on the index.

Juanita Elias, who researches women’s role in the global economy at the University of Warwick, says this can make it seem as though women in certain countries are doing better than they really are.

“The Philippines always comes out as the top country in Asia, and it ranks well in health [on the index], but it has one of the lowest life expectancies in all of Asia,” she says.

“Female life expectancy is really low there. It’s just that it’s about the same as it is for men.”

Similarly, she says, a high rate of economic participation is not always a good indication for women.

“A country can have a very high economic participation rate [for women], simply because it’s a poor country, and in order to survive you have to work: Women have to be economically engaged because otherwise, families starve.

“There are other countries where there’s not a great economic participation rate, but it’s not a terrible place to be a woman.”

Fourth-ranked Rwanda has the highest rates of political participation in the world, but one of its leading opposition figures, Diane Shima Rwigara, is currently in prison.

Another top-ranking country, Nicaragua, is one of only five countries worldwide to enact a total ban on abortion, which drives high numbers of teen pregnancies. The country also suffers high rates of violence against women and girls.

While the Philippines and Nicaragua are both in the World Economic Forum’s top 10, they rank at 96 and 103 respectively on the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index.

Women demonstrate against gender violence in Managua, Nicaragua, in 2014. (Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images)

Issues such as early marriage, violence against women and girls and parental leave are captured in a chapter of the report, but do not affect the overall index. Ratcheva says that is by design.

“These are outcome measures,” she says. “They’re not going to tell you what the underlying factors are; that is going to need some focused, country-specific work and deep-dive analysis. What this is meant to do is shine a spotlight on where progress can be accelerated.

Ratcheva says she is confident that progress will pick up in the coming years. She predicts we’ll see a truly gender-equal country within the next two decades. On current trends, that country is likely to be the tiny Nordic nation of Iceland.

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