Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

Being a Woman Got Even Worse in 2017, World Economic Forum Says

  • Global gender gap widened for first time since 2006 data shows
  • U.S. ranks No. 49 as lack of political leaders drags it down

If it seems women’s progress has stalled lately, new data from the World Economic Forum puts a finer point on it: The gap between the achievements and well-being of men and women widened in the past year, the first time that’s happened in the 11 years that the group has issued its annual Global Gender Gap Report.

At current rates, it will take 100 years before women achieve equality in the four areas measured by the WEF: political empowerment, economic participation, health and education. When the Geneva-based group did its study last year, it estimated it would take 83 years to close the gap.

“It was a disappointing year,” said Saadia Zahidi, head of education, gender and work at the WEF. The global backsliding reflects a general slowing of progress in the world’s larger economies.

The U.S. fell to 49th among the 144 countries ranked, down from 45th last year and 23rd just 11 years ago. The country is only 77 percent of the way to gender parity in economic opportunity, a gap that’s been narrowing, but not as quickly as in other countries.

Political Imbalance

In politics, women make up less than 20 percent of Congress and just 17 percent of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, an imbalance that the WEF says puts the country just 12 percent of the way to political equality. Women in the U.S. do find parity with men in educational attainment and get close on metrics of health and survival.

India, which sank to No. 108 overall, down 10 places from 2006, was the reverse of the U.S., with high rankings for women’s political empowerment but near the bottom in health, education and economic participation. Economics is a particular area of concern, Zahidi said, because women do a disproportionate amount of unpaid work, like childcare.

Ranked 100 overall, China was No. 144 -- dead last -- for gender parity when it came to women’s health. One metric was life expectancy: Chinese women outlive men by less than two years on average, compared with a global average of five years. While about 70 percent of Chinese women participate in the work force, they earn only 64 percent of men’s wages.

Progress Signs

The news isn’t all bleak: Countries at the top of the list are continuing to make progress. Women in No. 1 ranked Iceland, for instance, may soon be equal to men in their contribution to the national economy. "That’s a message the world needs to absorb," Zahidi said. She also cited governments in France and Canada for naming gender-balanced cabinets recently.

The WEF collaborated with LinkedIn to delve more deeply into economic data in selected countries, with a focus on gender imbalance by industry. It found that while women’s numbers have increased in most industries, they are not at parity in leadership in any of them -- even in fields such as education, where women make up the majority of employees.

In fact, hiring of women hasn’t increased along with the number of women earning appropriate degrees in areas such as information technology and manufacturing. A large proportion of women are choosing not to go into those fields, Zahidi said, adding that retention of the women who do go into a field is also an issue.

“Gender equality has to be looked at in a holistic way,” Zahidi said. “Just making progress in one area isn’t enough.”

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