Closing the gender gap

Nordic countries may not have the best (warmest) weather in the world, but this week, once again, they were recognized as leaders in eliminating gender discrimination. When the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its annual report on gender equality on Thursday, Nordic countries topped the list with Sweden in first place, Norway second, Finland third and Iceland fourth.

The annual report, which covers a total of 128 countries, representing over 90% of the world’s population, looks at how a country’s resources are divvied up between women and men. The WEF report said the study examines four critical areas of inequality between men and women: “economic participation and opportunity – outcomes on salaries, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment; educational attainment – outcomes on access to basic and higher level education; political empowerment – outcomes on representation in decision-making structures and health and survival – outcomes on life expectancy and sex ratio.

Guyana is, unsurprisingly, not on the index. However, there are a few surprise listings.

Canada, which is said to be one of the best places in the world to live, is ranked at 18 on the list. South Africa at number 20, Cuba at number 22, Lesotho at 26 and Namibia at 29 are all ahead of the United States, which is listed at number 31, falling eight places from its rank of 23 last year. According to the report, the US scored lower because the percentage of female legislators, senior officials and managers fell in 2007 and the pay gap between women and men widened.

The Caricom country highest on the list is Jamaica, which is at 39. The next highest is Trinidad and Tobago at 46.

Head of the WEF’s Women Leaders Programme Saadia Zahidi, who is also one of the report’s three co-authors, said that religion and culture were among the reasons why, in some countries, men have economic, political, education and health advantages over women and this is particularly evident in predominantly Muslim countries.

However, Zahidi said, former Soviet nations with a Muslim majority, such as Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, were in the middle of the field, but nearly all countries in the Middle East placed in the bottom third. Pakistan, Chad and Yemen were at the very bottom.

And while women living on the Arabian Peninsula receive nearly as much education and health benefits as men there, Zahidi said, “they’re held back on political participation and economic empowerment.”

And there were some anomalies on the list as well. For instance, Russia is ranked at 45 yet, interestingly, it has one of the best, if not the best, maternity benefits’ programmes in the world. Anton Kazarin Editor in Chief of Delovoy Kvartal, a privately owned weekly business magazine in Yekaterinburg, which is Russia’s third largest city, gave insight into what may in fact be the reason for Russia’s low ranking. He said that by law, working women who have given birth are entitled to three years’ maternity leave with benefits. He admitted that this makes employers discriminate against women of child-bearing age. Even if their qualifications and experience make them the better candidates for jobs, a man would be hired far faster.

The ideal would be for resources in countries to be divided based on population. This would mean that in countries where there are more women than men there should be more women being educated, employed, working at high-paying jobs, receiving health care and involved in political decision making. However, the reality is far from this in far too many countries in the world. The WEF’s index recognizes and applauds the countries working towards this. It is hoped that its publication of the best adherers and worst offenders will work to turn things around eventually.

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