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Nordic Nations Do Most to Trim Gender Gap, Study Says

Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir
Iceland, with Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, seen here, in power since 2009, ranked first in the study. Photographer: Arnaldur Halldorsson/Bloomberg

The world is moving toward greater equality between men and women, with Iceland keeping its lead in a ranking of 134 nations and the U.S. climbing into the top 20, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.

Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden “demonstrated great equality between men and women,” according to the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index released today by the Geneva-based group. Of the countries surveyed, 59 percent narrowed the gap in the past year.

“It’s very encouraging that more countries are becoming aware of why it’s important to reduce the gender gap and are starting to explore policies that may be needed,” Saadia Zahidi, head of the Forum’s Women Leaders and Gender Parity program, said in an interview.

Gender equality fosters competitiveness and growth in both rich and poor countries, Zahidi said. Worldwide, gaps are narrowing between men and women’s health and education, while women lagged behind in economic participation, which includes salaried and skilled jobs, according to the report.

The report assesses life expectancy, salaries, access to high-skilled jobs, access to basic and higher level education, and whether women were represented in government and decision- making structures.

The review, begun in 2006, looks at how countries divide resources and opportunities for men and women, regardless of the level of resources available.

New Zealand

Top performers from 2009 also led in the 2010 survey. Iceland, with Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir in power since 2009, ranked first; Norway and Finland switched rankings with Norway second in the current survey. Sweden was ranked fourth, and New Zealand retained fifth place.

Among the top 20, Belgium improved most, to 14th this year from 33rd in 2009, in part because of improvements in wages, labor force participation and the number of women in government ministries.

The U.S. rose to No. 19 -- jumping 12 positions -- in part because women now hold 33 percent of leading jobs in the administration of President Barack Obama, compared with 24 percent in 2009, the report showed. Still, the world’s largest economy ranked 40th in political empowerment, with Iceland claiming the top spot.

A rise in estimated earned income for American women, to $34,996 from $25,613, also helped the U.S. move into the top 20 this year. Estimated earnings are measured in terms of purchasing power parity, or the exchange rate at which one nation’s price level equals another’s.

“The bottom line here is that you don’t fully capitalize on the potential of your talent base” without the full participation of women in an economy, said Laura D’Andrea Tyson, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was among the report’s authors. “There is a link between how well a country does on competitiveness and how well it does with the gender gap.”

Tyson spoke today at the economic forum’s headquarters in New York where the 326-page study was distributed.

Among countries that declined in the rankings, France sank to 46th place from 18th, as the number of women in government positions fell. South Africa slid six spots to 12th place, also because of the loss of women in government leadership jobs. The Netherlands declined to 17th place from 11th.

The bottom three spots this year went to Pakistan at 132, followed by Chad and Yemen at 134. They had the same ranks in 2009.

Denmark, Philippines, the U.K. and Sri Lanka were at the same rank compared with 2009, helping them remain among the top 20 this year.

Lesotho, in sub-Saharan Africa, gained two places to be ranked eighth, the study showed. Lesotho also topped the list on economic participation and was among the countries ranked No. 1 on literacy. It was the only sub-Saharan country found to have no gap in education and health, and it has more girls than boys enrolled in primary and secondary schools.

The study also assessed overall performance of the countries since the gender gap was first assessed by the World Economic Forum. Eighty-six percent of the 114 countries covered narrowed their gender gaps by 2009 compared with 2006, while 14 percent saw a widening of the disparity.

The report was the result of collaboration between Zahidi; Ricardo Hausmann, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University; and Tyson, who is also a member of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

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