22 Countries Outrank U.S. in Gender Equality

By Susan Weiss Gross

Susan Weiss Gross from Take The Lead, an initiative to propel women to leadership positions, looks at the U.S.’s dismal standing when it comes to women’s pay and political empowerment.

There are 22 countries, including Burundi, Nicaragua, Latvia, Lesotho, and the Philippines, where women have greater equality with men than they do in the United States, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report. Using educational, economic, health, and political indicators, the report measures the parity between men and women in 136 countries, which together contain 93% of the world’s population.

The report, released on October 24, examines whether there is a gap between men and women in these four fundamental categories:

  • Economic Participation and Opportunity, measured by women’s participation in the labor force, women’s income, women’s wages compared to men’s, and the ratio of women to men in higher-ranking positions.
  • Educational Attainment, measured by gender parity in literacy and in access to primary, secondary, and higher education.
  • Health and Survival, measured by comparing female to male life expectancy and the ratio of female to male births.
  • Political Empowerment, measured by the ratio of women to men in minister-level and parliamentary positions and by the number of women heads of state over the last 50 years.

The United States ranks high on gender equality in educational attainment and in health and survival—tied for first with a number of other countries.

While the United States ranks sixth overall regarding gender equality in economic participation and opportunity, we rank a dismal 67th in equality between men’s and women’s pay.

Related: How Much Do Women Business Owners Make?

But the area where the United States lags furthest behind other countries in closing the gender gap is political empowerment.  The United States ranks 76th in the ratio of women to men in parliamentary (i.e., legislative) positions and 32nd in the ratio of women to men in ministerial (i.e. executive branch) positions.  Women make up only 18.3% of the 113th Congress.  An impressive 47 countries have had at least one female head of state over the last 50 years.  The U.S. has had none.

Interestingly, the countries with the greatest equality between men and women are all Nordic: Iceland in first place, Finland in second, Norway in third, and Sweden in fourth. (The remaining Nordic country, Denmark, is in eighth place.)

The report notes that the success of the Nordic countries is due in no small part to their having adopted family-friendly national policies that have helped women to achieve equality with men.  For example, they all mandate generous paid maternity leave and paid parental leave as well as publicly financed child care.  In contrast, the United States has no federal law mandating paid maternity or parental leave and only a handful of states provide for these benefits in a limited way.   Only low income families in the U.S. are eligible for subsidized child care, and just a small percentage of those families actually receive it.

In fact, the United States lags behind most countries in family-friendly policies. For example, the U.S. is among only four countries in the world that have no national law mandating paid maternity leave (the others are Swaziland, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea) and the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not require paid parental leave, which allows mothers (and sometimes fathers) to take paid time off to care for a child. (The Family and Medical leave Act of 1993 does allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for family and medical reasons, such as the birth or illness of a child.)

The other countries that have done a better job than the U.S. in closing the gender gap are Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Cuba, South Africa, The United Kingdom, Austria, Canada, and Luxembourg.

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Susan Weiss Gross22 Countries Outrank U.S. in Gender Equality