The World Economic Forum published a report on gender gaps throughout the world praising countries in which men lag behind women. John Edale deconstructs this report and advocates for true equality not just a different inequality.
Last month the World Economic Forum published its annual Global Gender Gap Report. The report measures the progress that has been made in reducing gender gaps throughout the world in areas such as education, literacy, health and earnings. It then combines the data from these different indicators to produce a Global Gender Gap Index, ranking countries according to their overall performance.
The report received a significant amount of press coverage in the UK, with the BBC even scheduling a month-long “100 Women” season of programs and events to coincide with its release.
The main conclusion of this year’s report is the welcome news that many of the disadvantages facing women around the world are slowly being overcome.
However, for me, the usefulness of the report, and at times even its validity, is undermined by the fact that it takes a strange and openly one-sided approach towards gender equality.
Earlier this year I wrote about the problem of educational underachievement by boys in the developed world, and how reluctant we seem to be to even acknowledge this as a problem let alone try to get to grips with it. I was therefore interested to see what approach the report would take towards this particular gender gap.
The beginning is certainly promising. When explaining the ways in which the Index was calculated the report states that it “ranks countries according to their proximity to gender equality rather than to women’s empowerment. Our aim is to focus on whether the gap between women and men in the chosen indicators has declined, rather than whether women are ‘winning’ the ‘battle of the sexes’.” (page 4)
However, on the very same page, the report goes on to explain :
“To capture gender equality, two possible scales were considered. One was a negative-positive scale capturing the size and direction of the gender gap. This scale penalizes either men’s advantage over women or women’s advantage over men, and gives the highest points to absolute equality. The second choice was a one-sided scale that measures how close women are to reaching parity with men but does not reward or penalize countries for having a gender gap in the other direction.”
One might imagine that the first scale would be the obvious, common sense choice, and the only one compatible with the aim of ranking countries according to their proximity to gender equality, and yet the report’s authors opt instead for the second “one-sided” scale.
If you are wondering what the reasons for this were then I’m afraid you will have to keep on wondering.
“We find the one-sided scale more appropriate for our purposes” is the only explanation the reader is given.
The report is almost 400 pages long. One might imagine that a paragraph or two could have been spared to provide some kind of glimpse into the rationale behind a decision which fundamentally alters the nature of the Index, and contradicts its stated aim.
Whatever the reasons, one of the results of using the second scale is that the large gender gap in educational achievement that has existed throughout the developed world for over two decades simply vanishes. Countries where women achieve more than men educationally are all given the maximum possible score in this category (1.000) when calculating their overall place on the Index.
As well as the main Index, the report goes on to provide separate tables ranking countries according to their performance on each individual indicator. At this point even the commitment not to reward cases in which women are outperforming men is abandoned.
The countries which are ranked highest in each category are not those which have the smallest gender gap, but those which have the largest “reverse” gender gap.
When measuring enrollment in tertiary education (college, university etc) this produces some bizarre results. The number one ranking nation is Qatar with a staggering female to male student ratio of 5.60. The US comes in at 32nd place with a ratio of 1.41, while the UK is 36th with a ratio of 1.38. Over half of the countries surveyed have more female than male students. Apart from suggesting that the term “reverse gender gap” may be a misnomer in this particular area, it also means that those countries which currently have a perfect 1.00 ratio (Switzerland and Guatemala) are relegated to the bottom half of the table. Beneath these are the minority of countries which have more male than female students, with Chad being at the very bottom of the pile with a dismal ratio of only 1 female student for every 4 males.
Perhaps the oddest thing about this whole odd table is that the size of the gender gap in the worst country is surpassed only by the size of the gender gap in the “best.”
Sometimes the language used in describing the results becomes distinctly Orwellian. At one point the report states that “Philippines is the only country in Asia and the Pacific that has fully closed the gender gap in both education and health.” (page 21)
At enrollment in primary education, Philippines has a female to male ratio of 1.02. At secondary education this has risen to 1.19, and at tertiary education to 1.24. By what definition can this be described as a “fully closed” gender gap?
The WEF’s methodology produces some surreal results in other categories too.
In the Healthy Life Expectancy table, the top ranking country is the Russian Federation, where women can expect to enjoy an average of 65 healthy years, compared to only 55 for men.
However, Japan, which has the highest figure of all for women (78 years) is way down in 36th place. Japan’s problem is that its pesky menfolk aren’t lagging far enough behind. They are stubbornly hanging on for an average of 73 healthy years, which is spoiling the country’s ratio.
Thus we have a situation where a country in which both genders enjoy longer, healthier lives, and where the gap between the genders is smaller, is actually penalized in the rankings precisely because the gap is smaller.
If the validity of this logic is accepted then the best thing any man can do to make his country a more equal place is to throw himself under the nearest bus.
Does this back-to-front approach to gender equality really benefit anyone?
Surely organizations like the World Economic Forum are running the risk of discrediting the very notion of a struggle for equality in the eyes of many people who might otherwise have been supportive?
The crime writer Raymond Chandler once said “If you believe in an ideal, you don’t own it, it owns you.”
Too many of today’s guardians and gatekeepers of Equality don’t seem to see things that way. They believe the ideal is theirs to tweak, twist and reinvent as they see fit.
Maybe we need to become more willing to ask them why?
Photo/ Flickr— Neela