Where is it good to be a woman?

Article Highlights

  • Only thanks to a methodological legerdemain is it possible to conclude that Burundi provides more economic equality to women than 133 of 136 countries accounted for.

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  • Facts on the ground have a lot more to say about inequality than the most impressive collection of statistics and algorithms.

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  • Where would you go to find less inequality and chauvinism?

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For just a moment, let’s pretend the GOP really were waging a “war on women.” Where would you go to find less inequality and chauvinism? According to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, three of the best options for women seeking greater equality are Cuba, Nicaragua, and Burundi.

Best known for its annual meeting, where the wealthy hobnob with the famous and the powerful, the forum is also a think tank of sorts, publishing reports on a wide range of subjects ranging from intellectual property to foreign investment and “entrepreneurial ecosystems.”

Since 2006, the Davos forum has also published an annual report on the “Global Gender Gap,” which now ranks 136 countries on how close they have come to achieving true equality between the sexes. The rankings are based on 14 types of data, collected from official sources such as the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, and even the CIA World Factbook. The authors include Laura D’Andrea Tyson, former chair of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Ricardo Hausmann, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard.

The question is, with such a wealth of data and intellectual prowess at their disposal, how did the authors arrive at the conclusion that the United States ranks 23rd in terms of closing the gender gap, whereas Nicaragua is 10th, Cuba 15th, and Burundi just edges us out, coming in 22nd? I contacted both Tyson and Hausmann to inquire about the study’s counterintuitive results. Both of them referred me to Saadia Zahidi, a senior director at the Forum as well as coauthor of the gender gap report. Zahidi committed to providing additional information, although none has yet arrived. Thus, I had to figure out for myself why advanced statistical analysis might indicate that the women of Cuba, Nicaragua and Burundi face less discrimination than those in the United States.

The short answer is that the forum employed an indefensible methodology, although its shortcomings have eluded almost every journalist who has reported on the results. In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof labeled the report “embarrassing.” Forbes called it “alarming.” USA Today duly reported that we have fallen behind South Africa, Cuba, and the Philippines. The Huffington Post ran several columns on the report, one of which praised the authors’ credibility and blamed “deeply rooted gender stereotypes” for America’s low ranking.

As it turns out, the greatest source of distortion in the index is the inordinate weight given to the number of women in legislatures and cabinets as an indicator of “political empowerment.” This weighting is peculiar, especially given that there is no differentiation between democracies such as Canada (ranked 20th) and dictatorships such as Cuba, where one man decides how many women will serve in the National Assembly of People’s Power. As it turns out, 49 percent of deputies in the assembly are women, as well as 23 percent of Cuba’s ministers. If not for Raul Castro’s personal interest in the appearance of equality, Cuba’s overall ranking would likely be in the mid-60s, where it ranks in terms of economic opportunities for women. In Nicaragua, which has become progressively less free under President Daniel Ortega (formerly its unelected dictator), the ruling Sandinista party has also made a point of ensuring that women are well represented in the National Assembly and the cabinet. Discounting this fact, Nicaragua’s overall ranking would likely be closer to 91st, where it ranks in terms of economic opportunity for women. By contrast, the United States ranks 6th in terms of economic opportunity, outpacing every wealthy country except Norway.

In contrast to Cuba and Nicaragua, Burundi would improve its ranking if politics were taken out of the equation, but this just highlights yet another way in which the ranking system is a farce. Impressively, Burundi ranks 3rd overall in economic opportunity for women. Also in the top 10 are Malawi (4th) and Laos (8th). As the report observes in its text, there are a substantial number of very poor countries where women have little access to education but often take on low-skill jobs to make ends meet. Since a country’s economic opportunity score rests in part on the gender ratio in the labor force, the surfeit of low-skilled female labor creates the impression of equality. Burundi’s opportunity score also benefits from a survey of 110 Burundian executives by the forum, who were asked, “In your country, for similar work, to what extent are wages for women equal to those of men?” These executives—there is no indication of how many were women—gave their country a generous score. Executives from Oman, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Uganda, and Zambia gave themselves even higher scores. Executives from Iceland, Denmark, Belgium, and the United States evaluated their own egalitarianism less generously.

Burundi also benefited from the absence of data for two of the five factors that contribute to a country’s economic opportunity score: the percentage of women in leadership positions and the percentage of technical and professional workers who are female. Instead of assuming that Burundi scored at the median in these two categories—already a generous assumption—the report does Burundi the tremendous favor of simply adding weight to the indicators where data exist, such as the gender ratio of the labor force and the opinion of executives.

Only thanks to such methodological legerdemain is it possible to conjure the conclusion that Burundi provides more economic equality to women than 133 of 136 countries accounted for. Malawi, Laos, Mozambique, and Ghana should be equally grateful to the report’s authors, because the same combination of misleading indicators, absent data, and favorable assumptions propelled them far higher in the rankings than they deserved.

For a very different perspective on gender inequality, an invaluable source is the series of annual Freedom in the World reports by Freedom House. Regarding Nicaragua, it says, “Violence against women and children, including sexual and domestic abuse, remains widespread and underreported; few cases are ever prosecuted. Additionally, the murder rate among females increased significantly in recent years. .  .  . Nicaragua is a source country for women and children trafficked for prostitution.” As for Burundi, “Women have limited opportunities for advancement in the economic and political spheres, especially in rural areas. Burundi continues to have a serious problem with sexual and domestic violence, and these crimes are rarely reported.” These few sentences demonstrate that the facts on the ground have a lot more to say about inequality than the most impressive collection of statistics and algorithms.

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