And the winner is… Iceland! According to the 2009 Global Gender Gap report of the World Economic Forum, the land of glaciers and puffins, population 319,000, is the most gender egalitarian country on earth, with women having closed 80 percent of the gap with men. Finland (2), Norway (3), Sweden (4) and Denmark (7) are in the top ten too, as is New Zealand (5). You could try harder, Spain (17) and Germany (12)–in 2007 you were in the top ten. And O, Canada: 25. Very sad.
The WEF measures the gap between women and men in four areas–economic activity, education, health and political representation–regardless of the absolute level of resources. Thus South Africa (6) and Lesotho (10) make the top ten, despite widespread poverty, illiteracy and a raging AIDS epidemic. The way the WEP measures the gap is a bit strange. Among the items not measured are reproductive rights (abortion is banned in Ireland (8), and the Philippines (9), where birth control is also hard to find, so how equal is that?); sexual violence (South Africa has the world’s highest rate of reported rape); and legal inequality, to say nothing of cultural practices like forced marriage, child marriage and female genital mutilation, and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women. Thus, in Lesotho, with one of the world’s highest rates of HIV, it’s the desperately poor grandmothers who are raising throngs of orphaned grandchildren. Still, let’s pause to cheer the fact that there has been measurable improvement for the female population in much of the world. As the report notes, "Out of the 115 countries covered in the report since 2006, more than two-thirds have posted gains in overall index scores, indicating that the world in general has made progress towards equality between men and women."
Indeed, progress can be lightning swift: South Africa advanced sixteen places, partly because a new government brought in more women. Iceland increased women’s representation in Parliament from 33 percent to 43 percent in just one year (fun fact–last year Icelandic voters elected Johanna Sigurdardottir, the world’s first openly lesbian prime minister, who returned the favor by appointing five women to her interim cabinet, the most in the country’s history). Compare that with the United States, where it took all of the 2000s to drag Congress from 13 percent to 17 percent. Indeed, we rank 61 in political representation, for an overall mediocre score of 31, sandwiched between Lithuania and Namibia. The bottom third of the list is filled with Middle Eastern, Asian and African nations where progress for women is slow or nonexistent: India, for example, gets pretty good press as a rapidly modernizing society, but it comes in at 114, down from 113 in 2008–closer than you might think to notoriously oppressive Iran (128) or Pakistan (132), to say nothing of Chad (133) and Yemen (last place).
That women are gradually moving up in the world–the WEP maintains that globally women have closed 93 percent of the education gap and 96 percent of the health gap–is definitely not the picture you would get from following the headlines, where the news is often unbearable. Right now, for example, Amalia, a young Nicaraguan, is being denied treatment for her cancer. She is twelve weeks pregnant, you see, and doctors are afraid to risk violating the total ban on abortion brought in by Marxist-turned-Catholic Daniel Ortega–even if without treatment she dies, and her fetus dies and her 10-year-old daughter is left motherless. Amalia is not the only Nicaraguan to have suffered as a result of this law–according to Amnesty International, it has caused an increase in maternal deaths. In Turkey, honor killings were highlighted by the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Medine Memi, buried alive by her father because she talked to boys. From Malaysia to Nigeria, women in the Muslim world face canings, floggings and executions for violating Sharia law–for example, by being raped, like 13-year-old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow of Somalia, stoned to death by fifty men before a stadium audience of 1,000. And what of women caught up in the thirty-three wars raging around the globe, as in Congo, where horrific rapes and tortures are pervasive? Catastrophic violence like that can reduce one to despair pretty quickly.
Protracted struggle is the theme of the UN’s Beijing Plus 15 conference, taking place in New York as I write. For example, equal access to education was a key goal of the 1990 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and, as the WEF report found, real progress has been made–in many countries, females now outnumber males in schools and universities. But education is no magic bullet. As Mario Osava writes, "females represent a majority at every level of education in Brazil, and the average rate of schooling among Brazilian women is more than one year higher than that of men. Yet women continue to earn 30 percent less than men for the same work, and they occupy a mere 56 of the 594 seats in the Brazilian Congress."
What’s the lesson for the United States? Wealth helps, but it’s not enough. It’s not automatic that as a country becomes richer and more developed men and women become more equal–especially when conservative religion has power, as in the United States and many nations. To an unusual degree, Americans resist "government" solutions to women’s inequality as an affront to meritocracy and individual initiative. But without paid parental leave and a reliable system of quality childcare, women will never be able to get much further toward workplace equality than they are now. Scandinavia’s extensive and flexible system of support for parents, including single mothers, is one of the major reasons Scandinavia leads the world in gender equality. Similarly, countries with lots of women in parliament–Rwanda is first, with 56 percent–tend to have quota systems, at least at first. The United States seemed to recognize their efficiency and fairness when it supported quotas in Iraq and Afghanistan. But here at home? Hard to imagine.
Katha Pollitt’s writing has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Her new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House. Her previous books include Learning to Drive: and Other Life Stories (Random House), a collection of personal essays.