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This blog is an excerpt from The Gender Equality and Governance Index.  It is the Executive Summary and is provided to supplement the interview with Amanda Ellis and Augusto Lopez-Claros, as part of the International Leadership Association’s interview series.  It is a companion to their interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled GEGI: Empowering Women for the Prosperity of Nations that aired on Tuesday, April 13th, 2021.

Gender inequality has myriad faces: archaic laws that codify sexism, male control of joint income and household assets, exclusion from governance, trafficking and violence against women, denial of education and adequate health care, and gender segregation in the workforce, to name a few. The scope of inequality is vast and its costs to society are mounting.

COVID-19 has prompted new awareness around this topic, as the effects of the pandemic have exacerbated existing gender inequalities and revealed the importance of female inclusion in governance and decision-making. The evidence linking gender equality to economic and social well-being and prosperity is clear. Now more than ever, we must prioritize the role of women in fostering communities’ and countries’ well-being and economic health by developing policies that guard against gender discrimination.

The Gender Equality and Governance Index (GEGI; Figure 1 provides the index structure and its various components) was built with the understanding that indexes—despite their limitations—are tools to generate debate on key policy issues, to precipitate remedial actions, and to track progress. A well-designed composite indicator thus provides a useful frame of reference for evaluation, both between countries and over time. The GEGI analyzes data from a variety of international organizations and valuable survey data to achieve a broad-based and comparative understanding of gender discrimination on a global scale, using five critical “pillars”: governance, education, work, entrepreneurship, and violence. By breaking scores down into pillars, the GEGI allows policymakers to pinpoint specific areas for improvement.

The GEGI rankings for 2020 indicate a clear correlation between gender equality, economic prosperity, and inclusive leadership. Iceland ranks first in the world among the 158 countries included in the index, followed by Spain and Belgium. Canada (9) and New Zealand (16) are the only non-European countries to rank in the top 20. The highest-ranking country in East Asia is Taiwan (21), and Canada scores highest in the Americas. (See Appendix II for the rankings for the 158 countries included). Much further down the rankings, we find China (82) and India (100). Given that one out of three women on the planet lives in these two countries, gender inequality there is particularly troublesome. Sub-Saharan Africa makes up nearly one-half of the 50 lowest-ranking countries, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) comprise another one-third. Gender equality correlates strongly with higher levels of economic prosperity per capita, as 47 of the countries in the top 50 are either high or upper middle income. Rwanda (55) is the highest-scoring low-income country.

For the countries included in the index, higher levels of discrimination against women coincide with lower rates of labor force participation for women, lower rates of school enrolment for girls at the secondary level, lower numbers of women-owned businesses, and larger wage gaps between women and men. These findings should come as no surprise. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has argued that decreasing work-related gender inequalities can make “a positive contribution in adding force to women’s voice and agency,” thereby empowering women within both the public and private spheres.1 Countries that have integrated women into the workforce more rapidly have improved their international competitiveness.

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which envisioned gender equality in all dimensions of life – and yet not a single country has yet achieved it. Worse still, only eight countries have a legal framework that does not discriminate against women in some way, with a body of legislation supporting women’s economic equality, which benefits everyone. Achieving gender equality requires more than simply removing barriers to opportunity. Many decades after the women’s suffrage movement, women are still grossly underrepresented in executive and policymaking bodies. For gender equality to become a reality, with all its attendant benefits, the first step is ensuring women are equally represented at the highest levels of decision-making across a country.

Gender equality in governance requires both de jure and de facto progress. The GEGI evaluates the legal framework of a country and measures the extent of female inclusion in governance. Less than 5% of countries have gender balance in political governance. Female leadership in the justice system, the central bank, and the ministerial and executive levels of government is crucial, but notably lacking. Only 21 countries currently have a female head of state or government; only 14 have female central bank governors. Only one in four Parliamentarians is female and one in five a Minister. In the private sector, despite well-documented research on the financial benefits of the diversity dividend, a third of global boards have no women at all. To remedy this, countries have begun implementing quotas, often as temporary special measures, that reserve representation for women. For instance, after Argentina saw success with a quota requiring a minimum number of female candidates in national elections, many other Latin American countries followed suit.

While attempts to solve gender inequality through legislation, inclusion in decision-making, and quotas are necessary, they are by no means sufficient. A critical prerequisite for female leadership in governance is education. Since inequalities in education artificially reduce the pool of talent from which companies and governments can draw, a direct way to boost economic growth is to improve both the quality and quantity of human capital by expanding educational opportunities for girls. Cultural attitudes against female education continue to prevail, and investment in girls’ education is still far below that of boys. For instance, the World Bank reports that only 38 percent of girls in low-income countries enroll in secondary school, and nearly 500 million women remain illiterate. Research has conclusively proven the importance of education in expanding opportunities for women outside the home and the positive multiplier impact for families, communities and economies. The most competitive economies in the world are those where the educational system does not put women and girls at a disadvantage.

Gender inequalities in employment are also toxic to economic growth because they constrain the labor market, making it difficult for firms and businesses to scale up efficiently. Globally, only 47 percent of women are employed in the labor force, compared to over 70 percent of men. This gap is most stark in South Asia and the MENA region, where just over 20 percent of women are in formal employment. Including women in the work force requires a multifaceted approach. Incentives to work, including paid parental leave and childcare services, have proven effective in increasing female labor force participation. However, many working women remain segregated in female-dominated fields that tend to be lower paid and have fewer opportunities for advancement. Women continue to be excluded from managerial positions, and no country has succeeded in ensuring equal renumeration for work of equal value.

Given that just 7 percent of women in low income countries are employed as wage workers, entrepreneurship and self-employment is an equally important avenue for female empowerment. Women entrepreneurs could contribute significantly to economic innovation and growth if given access to the same training, capital, credit, and rights as men. Women face severe difficulty accessing financial accounts and securing credit; in fact, estimates from the International Finance Corporation suggest that women entrepreneurs face a financing deficit of $1.5 trillion. Because women tend to earn less and have fewer property rights than men, they have a harder time providing collateral to obtain a loan. Restrictions on mobility and cultural disapproval of women in business further discourage women from pursuing entrepreneurship.

Despite—and perhaps in response to—the progress that women have made in governance, education, and employment, they are experiencing violence at staggering rates. Women are most vulnerable to violence in cultures where long-held customs and fundamental prejudices place the culpability for violence on the women themselves. The cost that society incurs from violence against women is high. Gendercide has become an epidemic enacted through sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, and neglect and abuse of women throughout their lives. The result is a destabilizing gender imbalance in many countries—in India and China alone, men outnumber women by around 70 million. Furthermore, abuse of women has direct economic consequences, as it increases absenteeism and lowers productivity. Domestic violence is estimated to cost the United States $460 billion annually, more than any other crime. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this phenomenon, as reports of intimate partner violence have risen exponentially under mandatory lockdowns and quarantine.

COVID-19 has shone an uncompromising search light on global gender inequality, reminding us that gender discrimination has been undermining economic growth and wasting our human and planetary resources for far too long. The Gender Equality and Governance Index provides a scientifically evidence based, objectively verifiable diagnosis—now, action can no longer be delayed.

You can read the full report here.

1 Sen (1999), Development as Freedom, p. 191.

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About the Authors

Amanda Ellis leads Global Partnerships for the exciting new ASU Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. Previously New Zealand Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva (2013-16), Ms. Ellis also served as Prime Minister’s Special Envoy, playing a key role in New Zealand’s successful UN Security Council bid. The author of two best-selling Random House business books and five research titles on gender and growth in the World Bank Directions in Development series, Ms. Ellis is a founding member of the Global Banking Alliance for Women and the recipient of the TIAW Lifetime Achievement Award for services to women’s economic empowerment. She serves on a number of boards, including the Global Governance Forum.

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, Professor of Law, graduate of Yale Law School, and Founding Head of the Rackman Center at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, is a family law expert in both the civil legal system and traditional Jewish law, and has recently completed three terms as a member (twice Vice President) of the UN Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). She publishes on family law in Israel, legal pluralism, feminism and halacha, and international women’s rights; is a recipient of numerous national and international grants and prizes. Professor Halperin-Kaddari serves on the Advisory Board of the Global Governance Forum.

Augusto Lopez-Claros is Executive Director of the Global Governance Forum. He is an international economist with over 30 years of experience in international organizations, including most recently at the World Bank. For the 2018-2019 academic years Augusto Lopez-Claros was on leave from the World Bank as a Senior Fellow at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Previously he was chief economist and director of the Global Competitiveness Program at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, where he was also the editor of the Global Competitiveness Report, the Forum’s flagship publication. Before joining the Forum he worked for several years in the financial sector in London, with a special focus on emerging markets. He was the IMF’s Resident Representative in Russia during the 1990s. Educated in England and the United States, he received a diploma in Mathematical Statistics from Cambridge University and a PhD in Economics from Duke University.


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