Some notes on the Global Gender Gap Report 2018 – progress in women’s equality at a standstill

Just before Christmas the World Economic Forum published its Global Gender Gap Report 2018 showing that progress in women’s equality almost stalled last year. This index measures much more than just pay and is a useful report for global companies aiming to promote their D & I policies globally as well as providing a timely reminder that in certain areas the UK and the US could do with improvement.  As with the UK Gender Pay Gap Report, the numbers act as a broad signifier and further country analysis is required to explain some of the results. Behind the headline figures are a complex picture of advance and regression in different areas of public life for women globally.

The Global Gender Gap Index was first introduced at the World Economic Forum in 2006 as a framework for monitoring gender based disparities among a large group of countries. The number of countries is added to each year and only countries that can provide the relevant data are included – this year there were 149. The report sets out country as well as regional rankings and there are four key sub-indices which make up the Index.

  1. Political Empowerment
  2. Economic Participation and Opportunity
  3. Health and Survival
  4. Educational Attainment

There was extremely slow progress this year with the overall gender parity gap being reduced by only 0.03%. Whilst some of this could be explained by the entry of fairly underdeveloped countries being added to the index each year, individually some Western countries have stalled as well.

Top Ten Countries

  1. Iceland
  2. Norway
  3. Sweden
  4. Finland
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Rwanda
  7. New Zealand
  8. Philippines
  9. Ireland
  10. Namibia

United Kingdom was 15th

Globally the average (population weighted) gender gap is 32% but there are huge disparities among the different sub-indices. Gender parity in Western countries has slightly reduced while the progress is ongoing on average elsewhere.

The Political Empowerment index showed the greatest gap of 77%. The measurement currently only includes offices at national level and so this may not reflect the picture at regional level but it is still a substantial gap. There were improvements in 89 countries this year but the disparity between countries is vast. There are 17 countries that have women as heads of state while only 18% of all minsters and 24% of parliamentarians are women.

The country with the best political empowerment ratio was Iceland which has a 33% gap but one quarter of all countries have a gap of 90% or more and four countries have one of more than 97% – Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and Yemen. The report says that the progress in political empowerment made over the past decade has started to reverse.

The huge gender gap in the political empowerment index skews the results even though the researchers have weighted each sub-index. This seems to favour countries with good representation at national government level which may have very poor indices elsewhere (e.g. Rwanda, Namibia and see below for discussion of a specific example, Bangladesh). There are also many aspects of women’s lives which are not measured but could be thought central to their equality and respect – typically sexual violence and domestic violence, and rights to birth control.

The Economic Participation and Opportunity index showed a global gap of 42%. It was the only sub-index to show a reduction in the gap and that was 1%, however within that index the participation in the labour force element has seen a widening of the gap and there are as expected wide country discrepancies. Globally 34% of managers are female across countries where data is available and less than 7% in the four worst performing countries’ – (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan). The estimated income gap is 47%. In terms of broader economic power, gaps in control of financial assets and in time spent on unpaid task continue to preserve economic disparities between men and women. Women have as much access to financial services as men in just 60% of countries assessed and to land ownership in just 42% of countries assessed. For the 29 countries that have relevant data women spend on average TWICE as much time as men on housework and other unpaid activities. In Japan this is fivefold!

The Educational Attainment gender gap is significantly smaller at only 4.4%. The worst performer is Chad at 57%, and there are still 44 countries where over 20% of women are illiterate. In Chad just 13% of women can read and write. And near parity in higher education enrolment rates often mask low participation of both men and women. Only 65% of girls and 66% of boys enrol in secondary education globally. The figures have also been criticised as using enrolment rates when in reality in many countries girls drop out significantly earlier than boys. So although the global gender gap is small, again the figures mask huge disparities and show overall very underdeveloped human capital in many countries.

Health and Survival gender gap is small at 4.6% with 74 countries having a gap of only 2%. In almost all countries women tend to live longer. The gender parity on sex ratio at birth is also very advanced. It is as it should be (a natural 94.4%) in 113 countries with almost all countries showing above 92%. Four countries’ (India, Azerbaijan, Armenia and China) measurement is below 91%, highlighting the ‘missing women’ statistic. These countries show strong preference to boys and girl babies are known to ‘disappear’ or in more recent years to be aborted.

 The limits of the index

An example of why the top line rankings need closer scrutiny is Bangladesh. Bangladesh cemented its position in rankings as the top performing country in South Asia, climbing to No.48 on the global list from last year’s ranking of 72. Despite ranking in the lowest 15% of countries for equality in economic opportunities, Bangladesh ranks seventh in female political empowerment. This puts the South Asian country one spot above Sweden in political gender parity. Yet the conditions and lives for women in the two countries couldn’t be more different. Bangladesh has a female prime minister, Sheikh Hasina and since 1991, a woman has held this office for all but three years. Women are politically empowered at the highest levels. This is because the country has implemented a gender quota system in parliament, automatically reserving 50 of its 350 seats for women. This move enabled it to decrease its gender gap in political empowerment without waiting for societal norms and attitudes about women in leadership to change first. The country performed poorly in other areas and was ranked only 124 in labour force participation, 104 in wage equality, 108 in earned income, and 106 in legislators, professionals/technical workers (sub-indices of economic performance) “If the report is based on the Prime Minister, opposition leader, and speaker of the parliament, or a minister of one or two ministries, then it does not reflect the reality on the ground,” BNP’s Assistant Secretary for International Affairs Rumeen Farhana said. So this top line result masks Bangladesh’s continued struggle with violence against women, wage disparity, high dropout rates among female students in primary and secondary schools, and the absence of women in top bureaucratic positions.

The Philippines boasts of being one of the most gender-equal countries in the world for the past years,  despite slipping three spots from 7th place  to 10th in the Index.  The Philippines legislature passed the Magna Carta of Women Act in 2009, which promotes gender equality in government by mandating quotas for the proportion of women in government jobs. It also empowers the state to take measures to encourage gender diversity in the private sector, though it stops short of mandated quotas. The relative equality there is attributed to that as well as with a strong history of matriarchal ethos in the society going back centuries. But some studies show that there are limits to women’s participation and equality in the workplace. The Philippine Institute for Development Studies states   that the unemployment rate is not always reflective of the working conditions of women, especially since it can make it seem that “women in the Philippines who join the labor force have similar economic opportunities as men.”

In a different report by HR in Asia, it was also found that 76 percent of female respondents in the Philippines deal with inequality and prejudice in the workplace, with 17 percent admitting to being questioned about their desire to have a family during the interview process.


The magnitude of gender gaps in countries is the result of a mix of socioeconomic policy and cultural variables so regardless of political intention, religious and cultural restrictions on women’s equality mean that certain countries perform very badly on the index – Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan. The report also highlights the strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its economic performance and the connection between women’s equality and poverty – women’s labour participation and the economy.

This is ongoing active work; gender parity will not be gained automatically. It requires consistent commitment and effort at the highest levels. Just like in organisations a change of leadership, a change in economic fortunes can lead to a lessening of focus on gender. Sometimes a crisis can result in a positive move (Rwanda, Iceland) as most change happens when there has been a conscious and consistent decision to do so. Certainly some countries’ good results have come about through the implementation of political quotas (Bolivia, Rwanda, Philippines, Bangladesh). However government policy and indeed political quotas on their own do not yield the best results as the examples above show.