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Fewer nations closing gender gap, study says

Wednesday, November 2, 2011  
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Fewer countries made progress toward improving equality between men and women this year, according to a ranking of 135 nations by the World Economic Forum.

Nordic countries did the best job, with Iceland holding the number-one position for the third year in a row, followed by Norway, Finland and Sweden, in the 2011 Global Gender Gap Index, which measures the difference between men’s and women’s economic participation and opportunities, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.

The United States rose to number 17 -- climbing two positions -- in part because women now make up almost half of the labor force and the income gap narrowed. It was followed by Canada in 18th place.

While differences in health and education are disappearing worldwide, women still lag behind in economic participation, which includes salaried and skilled jobs and political representation, according to a Bloomberg report on the index.

Of the countries surveyed, 55 percent narrowed the gender gap, compared with 59 percent the previous year. Some 85 percent of the countries improved gender-equality ratios since the first survey in 2006.

"Women make up one-half of the brain power of the human capital that’s available to an economy,” Saadia Zahidi, head of the World Economic Forum’s Women Leaders and Gender Parity program and co-author of the report, told Bloomberg. "If that one-half is not fully integrated into a particular country’s development and into its development over time, it’s fairly evident that there would be a detrimental effect.”

Added Laura D’Andrea Tyson, co-author of the report: "Labor-force participation is where the success starts to drop off.”

The World Economic Forum looks at how countries divide resources and opportunities for men and women, regardless of the level of resources available.

The Philippines came in eighth, followed by Lesotho, an African country, in ninth place. It was the only sub-Saharan country found to have no gap in education and health. Among the top 20, Cuba improved most, moving to 20th this year from 24th in 2010.

China, Japan and India maintained their standings or did slightly worse this year. China stayed at number 61, while Japan slipped four slots to 98th and India one place to 113th.

France losing ground

Among countries that declined this year was France, which dipped to 48th place after rising to 15th in 2008, and compared with its 70th place standing in the 2006 survey. France is also lowest ranked in terms of wage equality out of 131 nations that responded to that question, according to the report. The perception among business leaders there, Zahidi said, is that "women are earning far less than men for similar work,” particularly among high-skilled workers.

France’s government will punish companies with 50 or more employees that don’t introduce measures to eliminate wage inequality under a retirement reform law scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2012. France will also penalize companies with more than 500 employees whose boards aren’t 40 percent female by 2017.

Some of France’s neighbors -- Germany, Spain and Switzerland -- already rank in the top 15, with Belgium improving to 13th from 33rd two years ago. The United Kingdom slipped to 16th place from 15th.

Arab nations showed mixed results. Policy makers are waiting to see what effect, if any, the political turmoil known as the "Arab Spring” will have on the gender gap."I don’t think anybody knows how this will evolve,” Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador at-large for global women’s issues, told Bloomberg before the report was released. "Tunisia will be interesting to watch. Women there have enjoyed greater rights there than in any of the other Arab countries.” Tunisia ranked 108th after 107th last year, while Egypt improved to 123rd from 125th in 2010, the report showed.

Fostering gender equality can have a cascading effect, Zahidi said, with smaller gaps linked to higher gross domestic product per capita and rankings on human development gauges.

"A world where women make up less than 20 percent of the global decision makers is a world that is missing a huge opportunity for growth and ignoring an untapped reservoir of potential,” Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, said in a statement.

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