Gender gap refers to systematic differences in the outcome of men and women on a variety of issues ranging from economic participation and opportunity, political empowerment, and educational attainment to health and well-being. Unlike sex stereotypes that ascribe social roles to men and women based on a traditional distribution of labor within a particular society and thereby reinforce stereotypes, gender gap measures difference in the outcome to gain a better understanding of how these differences can be narrowed. Closing the gender gap is constitutive of achieving gender equality, which can be defined as “a stage of human social development at which the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of individuals will not be determined by the fact of being born male or female, in other words, a stage where both men and women realize their full potential” (Lopez-Claros and Zahidi 2005, p. 1).
State policies are an important factor in shaping gender relations and, in certain respects, state actions are constitutive of gender. Countries vary significantly in their efforts to close the gender gap through “women-friendly” policies—social policies that seek to mediate social inequalities, particularly those flowing from women’s disproportionate responsibilities in caregiving. A 2006 study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) examined fifty-eight countries and their efforts in closing the gender gap. The Nordic countries, particularly Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, had the lowest gender gap. These states are characterized by liberal societies, protection of minorities, and a comprehensive welfare state that actively promotes gender equality through women-friendly policies. The United States was ranked seventeenth. The United States ranks poorly on the specific dimensions of economic opportunity and health and well-being, compromised by meager maternity leave, the lack of maternity leave benefits, and limited government-provided childcare. The overall rating is low, given that many scholars and policymakers consider the antidiscrimination and sexual violence legislation in the United States to be the strongest in the world. Countries with the largest gender gap were four of the seven predominantly Muslim countries, namely Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey. Sweden, in spite of being the country with the lowest gender gap, encounters occupational segregation with women working predominantly in the public sector. Thus no country has yet achieved full gender equality, making gender gap a global phenomenon.
Since 1990 the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has published an annual report that examines human development based on four indices: the Human Development Index (HDI), the Gender-Related Development Index (GDI), the Gender-Empowerment Measure (GEM), and the Human Poverty Index (HPI). Based on these indices 174 countries are ranked. For the evaluation of gender gaps the GDI and the GEM are important measures. The GDI is composed of an average of three indices that measure gender differences in terms of life expectancy at birth, gross enrollment and literacy rates, and earned income. The GEM is an average of three other variables that reflect the importance of women in society, specifically the participation of women in employment, the male to female ratio among administration, managers and professional and technical workers, and the female to male Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita ratio calculated from female and male share of earned income. While the GDI assesses the status of women in society the GEM points to the relative empowerment of women and men in the political and economic spheres.
Based on the GDI and GEM countries are ranked annually, thereby making it possible to evaluate their progress in closing gender gaps as well as the relative status of countries vis-à-vis each other on gender equality. While the indices are important tools for measuring the results of gender discrimination they do not address the underlying causes. Thus, although indices represent an important first step in comparing and monitoring the progress of countries toward closing the gender gap they are not sufficient to actually reduce gender discrimination. To promote policy change these indices need to be accompanied by, for instance, broader strategies for change that address the underlying causes of gender discrimination and best practice examples that enable governments and activists to learn from each other about how to close gender gaps.
Economic participation, or a high employment rate of both men and women, is important for lowering household poverty, enabling women to establish and maintain an independent household, and supporting an inclusive society. Access to employment alone is not sufficient to achieve gender equality. Equality within employment requires a closing of the gender pay gap, meaning that women are paid the same as men for the same work or work of equivalent value, and establishing economic opportunities to reduce horizontal and vertical segregation. Horizontal segregation means women and men are concentrated in different sectors and professions, with women working in areas with less opportunity for professional development and low pay. States can promote the opening of a wider range of occupations to women through equal opportunity legislation and affirmative action programs as well as antidiscrimination and sexual harassment legislation. Vertical segregation refers to the blocking of higher positions for women or limited opportunities for women to advance to managerial professions (the proverbial “glass ceiling”). To promote women’s upward mobility the state can establish, for instance, social services that provide caregiving for dependents, limit working time, and promote a “work-life balance.” (International Labor Organization 2003.)
Political empowerment of women is concerned with equitable representation of women in decision-making structures and their ability to influence the policymaking process. While most countries have de jure equality in political participation, actual participation varies by country. A 2005 United Nations report found that “women still hold only 16 per cent of parliamentary seats worldwide (only Rwanda and the Nordic countries have come close to parity) … by the end of 2004, 81 countries had adopted some form of affirmative action, such as party quotas or reserving seats for women in parliament to ensure their political participation” (United Nations 2005, p. 16).
Education has gender gaps in a number of areas, such as literacy rates and years of schooling ( primary, secondary, and tertiary education). While the gender gap in primary and secondary school attendance has narrowed over the past thirty years, the gap is still wide in tertiary education, particularly computer science and mathematics.
Finally, gender gaps can be found in health and well-being. The focus is particularly on access to nutrition, health care, reproductive facilities, and overall security in terms of safety and integrity of a person. A 2005 OECD study pointed to the relationship between birth rates and attitudes toward equality. Countries with “more traditional family structures in modern economies face chronically low birth rates, whereas the birth rate trend is positive and the demographic structure more balanced in countries where gender equality in the workplace is more developed. For these countries, that points to fewer problems with ageing, as well as higher labour activity and a more robust economy” (Mörtvik and Spånt 2005).
Gender gap and gender equality are two sides of the same coin. In order to achieve gender equality gender gaps have to be closed. Looking at gender gaps and monitoring their development can serve as a valuable tool for policymakers and activists to integrate gender equality in economic models for sustainable growth and development and create conditions for inclusive societies.
SEE ALSO Gender; Glass Ceiling; Inequality, Political
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