United States ranks worse this year on gender gap

On Thursday, the World Economic Forum released its annual Gender Gap report, which examines the level of gender parity between women and men around the world. The gap is measured across four key areas: health, education, economics and politics. And while the report shows that the United States' score has slightly increased, its overall ranking fell in 2013, from 22nd to 23rd on the list of 136 countries.

Who ranks above the United States? As one might expect, the top 10 is filled with Scandinavian countries known for their policies promoting gender equality and neutrality. Iceland takes the top spot for the fifth year in a row, while Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark are also in the top 10. Many other developed economies, such as Germany, the U.K., Canada and Switzerland all fall within the top 20 spots. But a surprising number of less developed economies also find their way into the top rankings, including Nicaragua (10th), Cuba (15th) and Lesotho (16th).

The U.S. drop in this year's rankings, the World Economic Forum reports, is due to the relatively stronger performance from countries such as China, Malta, Lithuania, France and Bulgaria on the report's "political empowerment" score. That measure looks at the ratio of women to men in minister-level positions, the ratio of women to men in parliamentary positions, and the ratio of years the country's top executive office has been held by men versus women over the last half-century (which for America is obviously zero).

While the percentage of women in Congress has slightly improved, from 17 to 18 percent, the United States still ranks 60th overall in terms of equality for female political leaders. That's far behind countries ranging from Bangladesh (ranked 7th for "political empowerment") and India (9th) to Mozambique (18th), Senegal (20th) and Mexico (36th).

The United States fares much better when it comes to the ranking for "educational attainment," which looks at access for men and women to basic and higher level education, tying for first with 24 other countries. Its score on "health and survival" is just slightly below the 32 countries tied for first place, dragged down by its 53rd-place ranking on healthy life expectancy.

It also ranks relatively high—albeit below where one might hope given America's role as an economic powerhouse—for the "economic participation and opportunity" gender gap, which takes into account wages, how many women participate in the labor force, and the ratio of women to men in professional and leadership positions. The United States comes in sixth overall, aided by its strong showing for the percentage of women in professional jobs and managerial roles, but gets edged out by top-ranked Norway and, more surprisingly, by Mongolia, Burundi, Malawi and the Bahamas. (You read that right: The report cites high labor force participation by women in some of these countries as the reason they rank so well, even if that means the women are doing low-paid or low-skilled work.)

Still, at 67th, the U.S. ranking for wage equality for similar work is pitifully, embarrassingly low. And coming in 60th for the representation of women in the political establishment puts America squarely in the middle of the pack, which is nothing to make us proud. Having more women at the top of our political establishment could do more than just move the United States up in the global rankings, of course. It could help improve numbers on women's wages, women's health and women in the workforce, too.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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