The World Economic Forum has issued its annual report on the gender gap worldwide and it has received respectful notice. But any report that places the United States below Cuba, the Philippines and South Africa deserves a little skepticism.
What the heck are they measuring? Well, for one thing, the report examines the difference between men and women within countries, not the absolute welfare of women in one country compared with another. Still, the study has been received as a report card on women’s well-being. Rubbish.
One of the gender gap measures is the number of women in national political leadership. The U.S. ranked 60th for equality in political leadership. Only 18 percent of the members of Congress are women, and countries like Germany and Bangladesh that have (or have recently had) female chief executives get extra points. Do you believe that the World Economic Forum is telling us something useful when it reports that women in India, Mozambique and Senegal have greater “political empowerment” vis-à-vis men than American women?
Counting up the number of women in parliament or the executive mansion doesn’t tell you much. Some countries have laws requiring a certain number of women to serve in the parliament. The WEF questionnaire specifically asks if nations have imposed such quotas. India has one for village councils and has attempted to pass another for the national parliament, though it has yet to be ratified. But why should the World Economic Forum extend garlands to nations that deny to women (and men) the freedom to choose the best candidate, even if it happens to be a man?
Indira Gandhi was prime minister of India from 1966 to 1977, and again from 1980 to 1984. Call it a great milestone for women if you like, but at the time, brides were still commonly bought and sold in India (many of them children), female infanticide was widespread, and women were barred from many sports, schools and other activities.
The U.S. ranked sixth in “economic empowerment and opportunity” due to the high percentage of women in managerial and professional work, yet still below Mongolia, Burundi, Malawi and the Bahamas. Really? Yes, it seems that you get ranked based on the number of women participating in the labor force, even if they’re doing menial labor.
The U.S. ranked 53rd on “healthy life expectancy” — an artifact of our lack of socialized medicine an NYU professor helpfully explained on PBS. But one of the chief causes of diminished life expectancy in America is violent death, which has little to do with the medical system. Another is obesity. America is second only to Mexico in obesity rates, and, you guessed it, women outrank men in the fat department.
The World Economic Forum study reinforces the usual myths about women’s wages — reproducing, for example, the widely discredited “fact” that women earn 70 cents on the dollar compared with men in the United States. The study is also heavily weighted in favor of the sort of social welfare policies practiced by the northern European countries — plentiful child care subsidies, generous family leave, and so forth.
The U.S. ranked high on “educational attainment” but frankly it’s a mixed blessing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women earned 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 62 percent of master’s degrees, and 53 percent of doctorates in 2010. That’s fine, except that 80 percent of women say that getting married is an important life goal, and most women prefer to marry men who are their equals or superiors in education and income. As women outstrip men in educational attainment, the pool of marriageable men shrinks, leading to more, not less, female unhappiness.
True well-being for women and men relies on the flourishing of both. Strong families and other social supports are probably more central to women’s success and happiness than the arbitrary metrics chosen by the World Economic Forum. If the U.S. ranks below Cuba on anything — except statistics like political prisoners — you know there’s a problem with the survey.